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The importance of empathy and grace

Posted by on Wednesday, July 19, 2023 in From the Dean, Summer 2023 .

Jeff Balser
Photo by David Bailey

Our patients, and often our own employees, want to know we care about them and what they are experiencing. We can each recall instances when someone’s lagging spirit impacted their work, their relationships or even their health.

According to the World Health Organization, more people in the United States are living with mental and emotional distress than ever before with approximately 20% of adults experiencing a mental illness — about 50 million people. Similarly, about 20% of children ages 3-17 in the United States have a mental or emotional disorder. Suicidal behaviors among high school students increased more than 40% in the decade before 2019.

So, as you read this issue of Vanderbilt Medicine, many people in our clinic waiting rooms, behind our front desks, and in our labs are living with invisible turmoil. And they are looking to us for support, solutions and — above all — understanding.

Disparities in access to health care are aggravating this problem. For example, this issue explains how many women across Tennessee are living in health care deserts. In fact, Tennessee’s health department indicates that the shortage of women’s health providers is more of a crisis than serious shortages of primary care and mental health providers. That portends trouble for our communities. These situations are increasing just as we are witnessing circumstances, ranging from economic challenges to policy changes, that further limit care. Myriad groups — from women and underrepresented minorities to LGBTQ+ people — are experiencing circumstances that increasingly limit, and in some cases imperil, their care.

Given the growing fragility of our country’s mental health, trust becomes an ever more critical facet of our work as we see our patients and research subjects and work with colleagues. At Vanderbilt, a major component of our care and research missions involves the conduct of clinical trials. In this issue, a team working for years to secure funding — and they did — developed a scale for researchers to measure trustworthiness in biomedical research among minority populations. The Perceptions of Research Trustworthiness (PoRT), described in JAMA Network Open, is a groundbreaking tool to improve the trustworthiness of researchers to boost participation in research.

It has always been true that caring for the whole person, whether our patients or colleagues, has been our essence at Vanderbilt. Yet today, it is very likely that the care we hope to provide increasingly may be compromised by factors impacting people that we may not easily see or personally understand. At times like these, as we advocate for policies that improve the health of all populations, our individual efforts to be present with empathy and grace are never missed — and may never be so impactful.

Jeff Balser, MD, PhD
President and CEO, Vanderbilt University Medical Center
Dean, Vanderbilt University School of Medicine