"Being able to allow differences"

Professor Dr. Florian Steger teaches medical students how to deal sensitively with patients from other cultures. In an interview, he explains why empathy is so essential for successful therapy - and a benefit for society as a whole.

"Being able to allow differences"

For us, empathy means accepting patients as they are. And empathizing with them in order to better understand their needs.

Absolutely. We try to teach that to the students on different levels. Through knowledge, skills, and an attitude - in the sense of openness to otherness. Being different is irritating for all of us at first. But we must respond to it and react to it. This can be done through skills training.

We know from psychotherapy research that there is this relational variable. If the patient and the therapist are a good fit, that is the best prognostic factor for a successful psychotherapy. Of course, we cannot cure someone by listening if he or she is somatically ill. But the psychosocial contexts play a big role. Today, it is actually taken for granted that psychosocial care is also offered in the case of a serious illness. This can also be social workers, occupational and physical therapists, speech therapists or even cultural workers. Music and literature can also be very supportive.

As a patient, you first must gain access. This is often very complicated. Treating a refugee usually means twice as much administrative work. In addition, many things are still unclear: How do you bill for services? How do refugees get a health card? How do they get to the practice?  Is there a translator? That is why it is important that we formulate the human right to basic health care. What we need are visionary and bold decisions that create real opportunities. If I always just leave refugees in the ghetto, nothing will change.

Because it changes the perspective. We need to be aware: The more homogenized a society is, the more endangered democracy is. Migration, if it succeeds, can be a stabilizing factor for democratic structures because it makes us more diverse as a society. However, this presupposes that citizens are involved. Unfortunately, we do not always succeed in doing that.

Absolutely. Whenever therapy loses professionalism. Our students learn that they need to take on a professional role that also requires detachment. If caring is too pronounced, that often does not help much. Out of respect for autonomy, one must also be able to accept that someone does not want to be helped. That is not easy.

The key is to get involved with the other person and to be able to let go of what is different. To understand that a stomachache can stand for fears because that is what it is called in a country. For that, I must have dealt with the other contexts, and I must remain curious. Anyone who loses curiosity about the other is not meant to be in a social profession.

Enrichment through new perspectives. For example, the majority of my scientific team is non-German. We experience diversity every day in the hallway. It is also good for us in research because we think very differently together.