Doctors call it empathy

On the business side of healthcare, doctors are at a disadvantage. Because of their training, or lack therein, and native personality, they often fail to understand the realities of the market place, take confrontation personally and are suckers for an aggressive sales pitch. They feel that their motives are pure and because they sacrifice themselves and their families, over many years, they should receive respect and success. “I build it, so they will come.” Confronted with a complex business oriented environment, they often make bad decisions, which leads to failure and burnout.

However, recently I have noted that physicians may have an edge. It is not perfect and it needs nurturing and support, but as apposed to the salesman, accountant or MBA, docs have a vital skill.

Perhaps the hottest buzzword in the business literature, at conferences and in leadership classes, is “Emotional Intelligence (EI).”   Industrial experts have added this skill to the “must have” short list of any successful CEO. EI is the ability to identify and manage both your own emotions and those of others; to be aware of and control feelings and, most importantly, help others use emotions, in order to make calm, clear decisions.

Now, I know, some of you who are saying, “you’re kidding. That doctor I saw was uncaring, unfeeling, and cold as a clam … a frozen clam!” Well, sure, there are doctors who are lousy “feelers,” just as there are acrophobic steelworkers, tasteless cooks, nearsighted pilots and pitiless priests. Nevertheless, most doctors understand that dealing with emotions is at the core of successful patient care.

First, every physician learns, through experience and instruction, how to handle and focus his own feelings. It is 8:05 in the morning, and you have been up all night with a dying 32-year-old breast cancer patient, simultaneously handling calls from the intern in the ICU who is managing a 87-year-old leukemic, and your wife is angry because you missed your child’s recital, who has a fever anyway, and you arrive at the office, where there is already a packed waiting room, to be told that Mr. Smith is in the back room on the floor, and his daughter is screaming at your nurse. When you walk into that room, you control your anger, exhaustion, fear, confusion, and you project motivation, compassion and drive. You stabilize the situation and save the day.

Doctors who fail to do this become cold and distant or simply burnout. However, the lion’s share of physicians spend a career identifying, focusing and using their emotions.

Across the exam table, doctors learn to identify and analyze the often complex, conflicting and layered emotions of his or her patients. Anxiety, anger, denial, confusion, hate, loss, and, of course, love.

The physicians who are most respected in a community are often not the ones who do the fastest surgery, make the smartest diagnoses or charge the least. The dominant doctors are those that connect to each patient’s emotional flow and needs. They understand family dynamics. They anticipate and warn each patient of emotional mountains and the deep valleys to come. These skills are core to a healers skill set. They are as much a part of the preverbal black bag as a stethoscope, a CT scanner or, in 2015, the computer tablet.

Of course, not every doctor has control of his own emotions, and not every doctor shows empathy. Moreover, empathy is not quite the same as EI. The former is feeling and connecting, while the later is deliberately using emotions as a positive tool. However, it is interesting to consider that this may be an area where doctors have a natural and learned ability, which can be applied in the competitive, metric driven, result oriented, finance and business world.

Now, if we can just get them to finish their charts.


  • D Someya Reed
    Whenever I go into the grocery store for one thing and end up with a cart full (of things), I ask the clerk, jokingly, "Is this part of your "evil master plan?" Followed by, "It appears to be working." Perhaps YOUR "evil master plan" is to start out your writings with all-inclusive statements such as " apposed to the salesman, accountant or MBA, docs have a vital skill" or "First, every physician learns, through experience and instruction, how to handle and focus his own feelings" even though absolute comments such as these are never true. Docs, as a rule, do not automatically have this skill just as some physicians will never learn. But over the next couple of paragraphs, you whittle it down to a more realistic assessment of "most" or "some" or "those who don't will..." Somehow, however, this always elicits a near Pavlovian response within me to reply; hence, the "evil master plan." So I start out disagreeing, then agree only to disagree again then agree again. It's like a roller coaster. But why I wanted to comment here is I recently watched a film from 1955 from a book published in 1954 called (for both) 'Not as a Stranger' by Morton Thompson. The film starred Olivia de Havilland, Robert Mitchum and Frank Sinatra. Robert Mitchum played Lucas Marsh, a physician with a multitude of problems both inside and outside of the hospital. His biggest problem being himself, his ego and his emotions. Hmmm. What concerned me while watching the film is that the depiction of Dr. Marsh within the hospital and around his physician duties is just as relevant for "some" physicians today...60 years later. His marital infidelity is relevant (for some) too but that's a different discussion. So my question is...Why, after 60 years, do we still have many of the same problems with physicians (and nurses, for that matter)? Even the dynamics between the two groups of professionals is largely unchanged. Is it true that Emotional Intelligence (EI) cannot be taught but is genetically predisposed? You either have it or you don't? Same with empathy? And what are we teaching the 'up and comings' that doesn't seem to result in any better percentage of socially "good ones" out of the whole? I must add here that I agree wholeheartedly with your 2nd to last paragraph in its entirety. For most people, the rankings for respect of a physician are often just as you say. I haven't read the book version of 'Not as a Stranger' yet but I'd like to. I hear it's very good though very long and sometimes difficult to slog through. The author is accused of being long-winded at times. I think I have that "skill" down pat myself.
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