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One Doctor’s ‘Empathy Project’ Helps Him Get To Know Patients Beyond Their Charts

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John Zylka
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Excela Health
Dr. Howard Gill (front left) with Starr Miller, Eugene Dillinger, Marian Palitto and Arnold Barbura, participants in the "Empathy Project."

Your doctor probably has a good idea of your medical history. But how well do they know you, as a person?

One physician in Westmoreland County has found a creative way to explore the doctor-patient relationship beyond exchanges on symptoms and conditions.

Dr. Howard Grill, a cardiologist with Excela Health, is the creator of the Empathy Project. Last year, as part of the project, he started taking portrait photographs of willing patients and recording short interviews, where the participants share pieces of their life story — like where they were born, or what they did for work.

"I wanted to try to find out what makes some of the patients tick, and what their stories are," said Grill. "And I think that’s something that would help myself and other doctors relate to our patients in a better way."

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Credit John Zylka / Excela Health
Visitors stand in front of the "Empathy Project" display at Excela Health's Latrobe hospital in Westmoreland County.

That sounds like something every doctor should want to do, in one way or another, but it turns out that as a group, they could probably stand to improve their bedside manners.

Bob Arnold, the director of the Institute for Patient-Doctor Communication at the University of Pittsburgh, said most of the research in this field has been gathered in just the last 15 years, but it’s already yielded some clear insights.

"We would think that doctors who are really smart and highly educated would communicate well with patients," said Arnold. "In fact, what much of the research in the first 10 years did was show there were flaws and limitations in our interactions."

For example, doctors were prone to interrupting patients, or using language they didn’t understand, he said.

"[And] physicians didn’t pay a great deal of attention to the emotional aspects of the experience that patients were having," said Arnold.

Those emotional aspects are exactly what Grill is interested in. He floated an example where a patient might be scared of a diagnostic procedure called a heart catheterization, or "heart cath," because they happen to have a friend who had it done and died due to complications.

"If that’s their inner fear, they might not tell you that they’re having chest pain, they might not tell you that they’re short of breath," said Grill.

Of course, those are things that Grill, as a cardiologist, needs to know in order to do his job.

"But once you get to know them, and build a sense of trust with them, then you can potentially allay their fears," said Grill. "Because it may turn out that their buddy that died after the heart cath had something totally different than they had. It may not have been related to the cath at all, it may have been related to the underlying heart disease, the underlying problem."

Gerard Eyth, a blacksmith from Jones Mills, Pa. who participated in the project, said usually, a talk with a doctor tends to play out almost like a business conversation.

"And that’s not the case with Dr. Grill. You know, it’s not like a doctor’s appointment when I go there. It’s like going to see a buddy," said Eyth.

Beyond the potential for patients, Arnold said this kind of project could benefit someone else, too.

"It'll also improve the experience for the clinician ... one of the things in medicine that’s a big concern is physicians and nurses [feeling] burned out from their work, and one of the ways you help build resilience is [making] the work more meaningful," said Arnold.

Grill agreed that the experience had been very positive for him as well.

"It’s very refreshing to be able to interact with patients in a way that’s beyond [being] very clinical," said Grill.

Today, Excela Health's Latrobe location houses an Empathy Project exhibit. The portraits of participants hang framed on the wall and a pressing a button will play the audio of their interview from a speaker.

Grill said he plans to continue interviewing patients and someday, he hopes to be able to package this experience into a teaching tool on patient communication for young doctors.

WESA’s Bridges to Health covers the well-being of Pennsylvanians and is funded by the Jewish Healthcare Foundation.