Being Kind: A Physician’s Emotional Intellect




As a physician, you possess certain aptitudes that many in other professions do not. We speak about more here than just the clinical skills that come standard with a career in medicine: the perfect understanding of the human body, the power of accurate diagnosis, a thorough knowledge of treatments and medications. Beyond these, a doctor must cultivate a temperament that is cool and impartial, but also patient and polite.

On this blog, we have discussed many issues pertaining to the importance of communication, from delivering good and bad news, to handling patient confrontation, or difficult staff. All are essential to long-term success. But coping with and surviving the many stresses, frustrations, and traumas inherent in medical practice depends on a physician’s level of emotional intelligence. This encompasses, and also extends beyond mere social awareness, empathy, and kindness.

A powerful guide

Emotional intelligence refers to the ability of people to not only identify, but understand their own emotions. This intimate understanding allows them to accurately read the emotions of others, and use that knowledge to guide their thoughts, opinions, and actions. When a physician turns their powerful analytical lens onto their own emotional intellect, what they may find is that, instead of not understanding people (silly, irrational people!), they lack an understanding of their own emotions. Being so out of touch, they fail to see how their detachment or displacement affects those around them. They are sure to be unaware of the emotional damage they are doing to themselves, as well.

Emotional intelligence isn’t just another transient buzz word. Many medical college admissions exams now include sections on psychological and social behavior. What is this further evidence of? That the connection with patients and staff, so vital to independent physicians, begins with a grounded connection to themselves. How a doctor acknowledges and processes their own feelings of guilt, grief, or anger will ultimately determine not only how they respond to it from a patient, but if they detect it at all.

Embracing emotional intelligence

Have you ever lost a patient, at least in some sense? After treating them to the best of your ability over a lengthy period, did they abruptly leave your care, unsatisfied? Despite unshakable clinical proof that a certain medication or treatment could greatly increase their quality of life, or even save their life, did they simply refuse? Point blank, has a patient under your care lost their life to drug, or alcohol abuse?

Shock, guilt, sadness, frustration, and probably some degree of cynicism are all normal, common responses to these scenarios. Still, they can be very hard to work through. That’s “work through”, not just “past.” Coping with emotions means acknowledging them, and moreover, dealing with them. Mastering the emotional center of one’s mind does not mean locking it in an impregnable box. If it is inaccessible, so too will you be to those who keep your practice afloat.

Sometimes, a doctor’s overtly clinical, and even cynical mode of behavior has its origins outside the practice. It is not always the result of losing patients or staff, or prolonged professional frustration. Losing a loved one, a parent, child, or spouse, is incredibly difficult, and emotionally draining. The same is true for a divorce, or separation.

Sadness, depression, or anger become inconvenient, and so they are treated as such, and ignored. There is a two-pronged hazard for a physician to compartmentalize in this way. If they view their own grief and sadness as undesirable, or foolish, then they will likely treat them with the same disdain and avoidance when coming from others. On the other hand, failing to work through a death in their own family may make it incredibly difficult for a doctor to come to terms with the death of a patient. The metaphorical “box” breaks open. They begin to project, and become too sensitive, too empathetic. In short, they are unable to adequately perform their duties.

Conducting a self-assessment

Measuring your emotional intelligence requires a certain level of introspection and honesty, and will likely take longer than a single afternoon. But there are certain things you can start thinking about that may give you a sense of where you stand. Think about recent, delicate encounters with patients and staff. Were there any failed opportunities to showcase your empathy? When consulting patients, do you tend to sound as though you are reading from a medical text-book? Does the mere thought of answering a lay-person’s questions make you irritable? Actually keeping a tape-recorder handy for these times can be a big help in determining your tone and temperament. Additionally, are you less interested in the person in front of you, and more interested in the information about them on your tablet, or clipboard?

How did you cope with the last true stressful incident at your practice? When was the last time you were wrong about something? (If you honestly can’t remember, then you aren’t being honest.) It may be helpful to engage your staff in this. Get a number of perspectives on how you conduct yourself during sensitive times, or conflicts. Remember, also, to keep these things in mind when hiring other physicians, or mid-level professionals like PAs, and nurse practitioners (NPs). More than nurturing your own emotional intellect, you want to make sure that your practice as a whole reflects a culture of emotional intelligence.


Brian Torchin

| HCRC Staffing | |

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