Empathy Is a Life-Changer

The Professionals in Residence program offers a profound, patient-centered understanding of substance use disorders
A multi-ethnic group of young business men and women in semi-casual office clothes are sharing ideas in an indoor, sunlit office. A hispanic woman is leading the discussion.
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The approach helped me appreciate the balance between listening to understand and listening to diagnose.

Andres Camacho, MD

Meet Andres Camacho, MD, a second-year family medicine resident with Hennepin Healthcare in Minneapolis, Minnesota. As a 2021 participant in Hazelden Betty Ford's Professionals in Residence program, Andres joined other physicians on the Center City campus for an immersive, insider's view into evidence-based addiction treatment and recovery practices.

As a physician, what was your biggest takeaway from the experience?

I was really influenced by the conversations counselors had with patients. The approach helped me appreciate the balance between listening to understand and listening to diagnose. As a physician, I have a limited amount of time with each patient so I tend to try to get ahead of the game in terms of assessing the situation and moving on to possible solutions. That's not the same as really listening to understand what the patient is going through, learning about their goals and helping them realize how their substance use, for example, might be hindering their progress toward those goals. Maybe they want to reconcile with their spouse. Maybe they want to go back to school. Understanding the patient's goals and what matters most to them gives me greater insight into the resources and support that will be most meaningful. I can help the patient focus on their goals, not just their illness.

How has the experience changed the way you practice medicine?

There are some simple, basic, ordinary things we can do as physicians that can have a major impact on helping people change their lives. I had the opportunity to meet with patients at different stages of the treatment process. At first, when most patients came into the center, they were experiencing physical withdrawal, in need of medical care and feeling afraid about the whole situation. You could see that life for them had become very, very difficult. But the welcome they received from counselors, staff, other patients and everyone involved showed me more humanity than I've seen in any other healthcare setting ever. That alone taught me the importance of embracing my patients—especially when they're struggling the most—so they do not feel judged and so they know somebody really cares for them.

Was there anything about your experience that was unexpected?

The patients I met and got to know were so honest and open with me and with their peers. Patients and staff connected as human beings, which gave me empathy and insight into the difficulties and struggles that come with addiction. I look at substance use disorders now as an illness rather than a matter of not wanting to change. Even for those who've burned a lot of bridges in active addiction, there's still hope. I learned to never give up on these patients. You continue to open the door and offer help because you never know what might turn things around for them. With the right care and support and tools, there's always the possibility of a good outcome.

What does the health care field need to know about addiction and recovery?

I wish every healthcare provider could experience Hazelden Betty Ford's program, not just because it's a week of learning in such a beautiful and healing place—but because it's life-changing. I think the program would be especially beneficial for healthcare professionals working in emergency medicine who see a revolving door of patients who are dangerously intoxicated or overdosing. As healthcare providers, we can be of more help than just stabilizing those patients medically, sending them back out there and then having them show up back in the ER the next week. We can't expect patients who are in active addiction to change if we're not offering the right care and resources.

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