Doctors need empathy

There is a common conception that doctors must develop a professional detachment in order to function at their best.

It isn’t difficult to imagine the impact on the lives of any of us if we opted to become emotionally attached to all of those people we have relationships with during our lives. We all develop a sense of emotional perspective and if someone falls on bad times or poor health most of us will assess whether or not us intervening will have any impact on the outcome – and then act (or not). If we tried to empathise with everyone we met we would soon become exhausted – physically and well as emotionally, so only those we can help and want to help are helped.

Consider then someone whose job is to try to help people assess and recover their health every day, such as medical doctors. They too must become detached to preserve their emotional health. Doctors also need to be able to carry out their jobs without their judgement being impaired by emotional involvement with a patient – in fact it is good practice for a doctor to refer those they are emotionally attached to to a colleague when they need medical advice. Consequently it has been a common practice for student doctors to gradually become less and less empathetic with their patients as their training proceeds and in the past that has been encouraged. 

However recent opinion in the Royal Society of Medicine suggests that it is important for doctors to retain a sense of empathy with their patients and practices in the past have gone too far and there is a need for empathy in the doctor:patient relationship – perhaps now more than ever as more communication is being actively encouraged in a new ‘patient-centred’ model of care.

Empathy, sympathy and compassion are defined and conceptualised in many different ways in the literature and the terms are used interchangeably in research reports and in everyday speech.1 This conceptual and semantic confusion has practical implications for clinical practice, research and medical education. Empathy, sympathy and compassion also share elements with other forms of pro-social behaviour such as generosity, kindness and patient-centredness.2 There is a need for conceptual clarity if doctors are to respond to the calls to provide more ‘compassionate care’.3 This paper argues that there is currently a problem in the balance between scientific–technical and psychosocial elements of patient care. A broad model of empathy is suggested which could replace the vaguer concepts of sympathy and compassion and so enable improvements in patient care, psycho-social research and medical education.                   

Read the full article here

Submitted by GAtherton on Wed, 2016-12-07 15:50

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