Dr. David Rakel of Albuquerque has written what you might call a prescription for the planet. It’s not a script on a slip of paper for a drug to combat the symptoms of a particular malady. It’s not a suggestion for an over-the-counter herb.
The prescription recommends combining mind, body and spirit to enhance well-being.
“I have discovered that people become the most effective caregivers when they use the vital yet surprisingly low-tech tool of human connection,” Rakel wrote in the introduction to his new book “The Compassionate Connection – The Healing Power of Empathy and Mindful Listening.”
Studies now show that humans can use their “very presence to promote health in those who are ailing and guide them on a path toward recovery,” he added.
In the book, Rakel explains the value of compassion for health professionals, family caregivers and patients based on many published studies in medicine, sociology, psychology, meditation and neuroscience as well as on his own clinical experience and research.
“My book comes out of research in the medical field but the teachings can help in any profession, whether you’re managing people, or you’re a parent,” he said in a phone interview. “In the medical profession we are trying to find self-healing mechanisms in every human being.”
Ravel is currently professor and chair of the University of New Mexico Medical School’s Department of Family and Community Medicine. He served as one of two physicians at a 14-bed rural hospital in Idaho and was the founding director of the University of Wisconsin’s Integrative Medicine program.
The key first step for any health professional in harnessing the power of compassion is self-reflection, Rakel said, because it helps that professional to be better prepared to facilitate healing in others.
“It’s hard to sit with another human being in a meaningful way if they are suffering more than we are,” Rakel said.
Rakel argues that caregivers and patients can better come to grips with illness through a concept he calls circular healing, rather than from the traditional practice of linear treatment.
Linear treatment, he writes, “gives patients what clinicians know and pulls them into caregivers’ beliefs” whereas circular healing expands the patient’s understanding of their illness by exploring their connection to themselves, which leads to an authentic healing action.”
If patients take time to listen to their thoughts and feelings they’ll be wiser for it, Rakel writes. In other words, use their own built-in mechanism of mindful listening.
Sure, there are obstacles to authentic patient healing. One is clinician and family caregiver burnout, including what he terms “empathy distress.” Rakel writes that he himself has withdrawn from patients when he’s emotionally drained.
Technology is another obstacle. As society’s main mode of communication, technology blocks the critical need for face-to-face communication, he said.
Doctors are spending twice as much time with an inanimate object – a computer – than with patients, Rakel noted. That means less time to educate patients about the valuable connected concepts of compassion, empathy and mindful listening.
UNM Health System, the clinical arm of UNM Health Sciences Center, has established an internal process called “Mission: Excellence” that aligns with ideas in his book, he said.
“The first step (of Mission: Excellence) is about learning how to provide compassionate, kind care with everyone we are privileged to serve and care for,” Rakel said. “We hope to translate it to better patient engagement for faculty and staff to form a trusting relationship with our patients.”