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The Emotional Intelligence of Physicians

Oncology doctor consults with a patient at her bedside (black and white)

When I told friends and colleagues I was going to be spending two days last week teaching an Emotional Intelligence course to physicians, almost without exception, everyone laughed. It’s interesting to think about why this is. Most people have had the experience of being treated by a physician who is not all that caring or compassionate and so the thought of physicians learning more about the skills and abilities that allow us to connect as humans strikes them as funny. I think in their minds they wonder if it is even possible for physicians to improve in this area, hence, the humour.

Now I’ve worked with a lot of physicians and so have fairly realistic expectations, which are not the same as my friends and colleagues who laughed. I happen to know there are physicians who are capable of caring and compassion. However, the group I feel privileged to have spent two days with last week actually exceeded my expectations. This group of physician leaders were so passionate about their work and so engaged in the course content related to EI/EQ that it gave me a lot of hope for the future of healthcare – despite its many issues and challenges.

Physicians are unique in many ways. For example, there is no other group of people on the planet for whom we as a society have a greater expectation that they have great technical knowledge and demonstrate compassion and caring. So much so that there is a special name for the emotional intelligence of physicians. Yes, ‘bedside manner’ is the name we give to a physician’s ability to care about us as human beings. We not only insist that they possess the technical knowledge required to diagnose disease and pathology and prescribe accordingly, but we also insist that they do that in a way that demonstrates that they acknowledge our humanity.

Oncology doctor consults with a patient at her bedside (black and white)It’s a big expectation. On one hand, the emotional state that is required to be effective in surgery is one of focus and concentration for intense technical information processing power to consider the implications of incisions, clamps, sutures, blood gases and the like. It would be near to impossible to maintain this emotional state while considering that the person on the operating table is the centre of some family’s universe. The emotional state required for technical competency in the operating room is not the same emotional state of compassion and empathy required to effectively deliver the news that the same family has lost that loved one knowing that the news will be devastating.

And yet, we expect our physicians to be technically as well as emotionally proficient. We expect them to handle this tremendous swing of the emotional pendulum with a great deal of competence. And they may also be expected to handle this discussion with the family knowing that there is another patient on another operating room table whose chance of survival decreases with each moment they spend with the grieving family.

For all of societies expectations I think physicians do an amazing job and I’m particularly encouraged by this most recent group. Can physicians improve? Absolutely. But we can all consider how we can improve our own emotional intelligence skills for greater effectiveness in our work – and our lives.

What do you think? Please comment below.

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