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The Empathic Physician—Whatever That Means


Should physicians embrace being more empathic? A new study says that's what patient care needs.

“Empathy represents the foundation skill for all the social competencies important for work.”

—Daniel Goleman

Lifestyle, Columns, Practice Management, Medicine, Healthcare, Physician, Doctor, Empathy, Empathic, Empathetic

I can’t say for certain that my physician-dad was an empathic person. Or that he practiced medicine with empathy. I do know that he was a very successful physician for parts of five decades. I also know that his patients thought he cared about them—deeply.

I’ve heard numerous patient accounts over the years and, even to this day, about how my father made all the difference in their ability to recover their health and physically flourish. So the guy must have had at least a decent understanding of people.

Last week I came across a report about an initiative to get physicians to develop and display more empathy during patient care. As if their unequaled training, exceptional skills, and lifesaving successes weren’t enough? Oh well, with today’s patients being more involved in healthcare delivery, perhaps it’s something doctors should explore and embrace.

According to a new paper from Britain’s Center for Population Health Sciences, “instead of being urged to simply ‘be more compassionate,’ doctors should learn specific empathy skills during their training to improve their care of patients “Empathy, unlike compassion or sympathy, requires an effort.”

Indeed, one prominent and seasoned physician suggests that doctors more broadly cultivate their emotions, rather than subdue them. Danielle Ofri, MD, author of What Doctors Feel: How Emotions Affect the Practice of Medicine, has worked at Bellevue, New York City’s pioneering and perplexing hospital, for more than 20 years. She explains that patients say all the time, “I want to be heard. I want the doctor to hear my story—from me as an individual. Patients want the doctor to hear who they are, how the illness affects them, and then take care of the whole person.”

The dictionary definition of empathy is “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” And while I find it hard to believe that a doctor could get by without empathy—it would seem a foundation plank of medicine—there are some ways to nurture one’s empathy.

In his classic self-help book, Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman calls empathy “a kind of “mind-reading.” Goleman says “understanding your own emotions is half of emotional intelligence, the other half is understanding the emotions of others. As we improve “self-awareness,” we also improve “other-awareness.” We learn that there is sometimes a difference between our own thoughts and feelings and the thoughts and feelings of others.”

According to Inc. Magazine, “the ability to see things from others' perspectives” can also be “a key to business success.” They suggest that to “increase your empathy quotient” you develop these habits:

Get Curious About Strangers—“Highly empathic people have an insatiable curiosity about strangers. They will talk to the person sitting next to them on the bus, having retained that natural inquisitiveness we all had as children, but which society is so good at beating out of us. Set yourself the challenge of having a conversation with one stranger every week. All it requires is courage.”

Listen and Being Vulnerable—“Increased empathy only comes through interacting with others, so you want conversations to be as deep and revealing as possible. In order to do that, you must develop two interrelated skills—radical listening and making yourself vulnerable. Removing our masks and revealing our feelings to someone is vital for creating a strong empathic bond. Empathy is a two-way street."

Expand Your Circle of Empathy—“The trick when it comes to increasing your empathy is to challenge yourself to see the perspective of those with whom you have less natural sympathy—perhaps even with your enemies. Highly empathic people do far more than empathize with the usual suspects. They also need to empathize with people whose beliefs we don't share.”

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