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Humanising medicine in the care of people with disabilities

17 May 2024

Disability is a term that covers a wide range of physical, mental, intellectual and sensory conditions that, to varying degrees, can affect a person's ability to participate fully in social and working life. From mobility problems, to sensory impairments such as hearing loss or visual impairment, to intellectual disabilities and learning disabilities, each has a unique impact on a person's life and requires a specific type of support.

Physical aspects of disability

Physical disabilities can result from congenital causes, disease, injury or ageing. They include limitations of movement, loss of a body part or its function, which may require the use of a wheelchair, prostheses, or other aids to support daily functioning.

Sensory disabilities

Sensory disabilities refer to disorders of the senses, such as hearing, vision or balance. They can significantly affect the ability to communicate, learn and interact with the environment, which often requires specialised communication tools and methods such as sign language or Braille.

Mental and intellectual disorders

Intellectual disabilities and mental disorders, such as autism spectrum disorders, Down syndrome or depression, have a profound impact on the way people process information, social participation and their ability to live independently. People with these types of disabilities often require support in education, employment and daily life to realise their full rights and potential.

Chronic diseases and their impact

Disability can also result from chronic conditions such as diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis or chronic kidney disease. These conditions can lead to changes in lifestyle, the need for ongoing monitoring and treatment, which requires understanding and support from the community and the health system.

Empathy as the foundation of care for people with disabilities

Empathy, understood as the ability to understand and empathise with the emotions and experiences of others, is the cornerstone of effective and humane healthcare, particularly in the context of supporting people with disabilities. It is not only a key characteristic of a good doctor or therapist, but also an essential element in building trust and effective communication between patients and health professionals.

Empathy enables a better understanding of the unique needs, challenges and expectations of people with disabilities. With an empathetic approach, medical professionals can better tailor treatment and support plans, taking into account not only the medical aspects, but also the emotional, social and psychological aspects. Such comprehensive care translates into greater patient satisfaction and can significantly improve their quality of life.

Communication with people with disabilities often requires special attention and sensitivity. Empathy is crucial here, as it allows for a better understanding of the patient's perspective and thus a more effective communication of information, explanation of medical procedures and support for the patient in the treatment process. Compassionate listening, being open to the patient's experience and responding appropriately to the patient's concerns are indispensable elements in building a relationship based on trust and mutual respect.

In making treatment decisions, empathy allows better consideration of the patient's preferences and values. In disability care, where difficult choices about therapy, rehabilitation or other interventions often arise, an empathic approach is essential to ensure that these decisions are fully informed and reflect the best interests of the patient.

Obstacles to the humanisation of medicine

The humanisation of medicine, although widely recognised as an ideal, faces numerous obstacles on its way. These challenges are varied and include cultural, structural and personal aspects that can complicate the process of introducing a more empathetic and patient-centred approach to healthcare.

The organisational culture in medical institutions often emphasises efficiency, procedures and financial results, which can limit the space for empathy and a personalised approach to the patient. In addition, cultural differences between staff and patients can lead to misunderstandings and communication barriers, making it difficult to build relationships based on mutual understanding and respect.

Healthcare systems are often characterised by rigid hierarchies, limited resources and excessive bureaucracy, which can inhibit initiatives to humanise care. Scarcity of time, work overload and budgetary constraints are real problems that healthcare staff must overcome on a daily basis while trying to provide quality care.

At an individual level, health professionals may face their own limitations, such as lack of adequate training in communication and empathy, professional burnout or difficulties in dealing with the emotional burden of working with patients. These personal challenges may affect their ability to provide care in a humane and fully engaged manner.

Solutions and strategies for overcoming barriers

Overcoming these obstacles requires an integrated approach that includes both systemic change and personal development of health professionals. Possible strategies include: training and education, organisational change, investment in additional human and material resources can help to reduce workload and enable a more personalised approach to the patient, psychological support mechanisms and burnout prevention programmes are key to maintaining quality care and job satisfaction.

Humanisation of medicine

Humanising medicine in disability care is a process that requires an understanding and acceptance of the complexity of different forms of disability, as well as the recognition of empathy as a key element in building support and improving the quality of care. Starting with an acknowledgement of the diversity of disability, we emphasise the need for a personalised approach that takes into account each person's unique needs and challenges. Empathy, as the foundation of care, allows communication barriers to be broken down and treatment to be better tailored to the patient's personal values and preferences, which in turn promotes better patient outcomes and increases satisfaction for both patients and healthcare staff.

The humanisation of medicine, while challenging, is an essential direction for healthcare that addresses the fundamental needs of patients with disabilities, promotes their dignity and actively involves them in the treatment process. By focusing on empathy, understanding and a personalised approach, we can not only improve the quality of life of people with disabilities, but also contribute to more inclusive and equitable healthcare for all.