Thursday, August 14, 2014

Recognizing and relating to a patient’s emotions

Excerpted from Should Your Doctor Cry With You?,” U.S. News & World Report. July 2, 2014 — Doctors deal with intensely emotional situations every day, in the face of which they are taught to remain objective. But there’s a growing recognition in clinics and medical schools that empathy and emotional intelligence have a prominent place in medicine, too.

If doctors really want to connect with their patients, says Peter Ubel, a physician and behavioral scientist at Duke University, they should model themselves after Starbucks’ employees. Baristas are trained to handle angry customers using the “latte” method of communication, which stands for: listen; acknowledge the problem; take action to solve it; thank them for bringing it to your attention; explain what you’ve done to fix the problem.

Instead, doctors often dismiss a patient’s negative emotions, Ubel continues. Studies have shown that when cancer patients expressed feelings such as ‘I’m in pain’ or ‘I’m scared,’ their doctors – mostly experienced oncologists – said nothing or changed the subject. But simple acknowledgment of the patient’s feelings – with something like "Oh, I can understand why this must be scary for you" – can open up an emotional channel that improves the relationship as well as, potentially, clinical outcomes.

At the same time, the distance that doctors are taught to maintain from patients is important to uphold. “You don’t want your doctor blubbering around the hospital,” Barron Lerner, an internist and professor of medicine at New York University School of Medicine, says. “There’s a professionalism associated with being able to deal with profoundly emotional situations in a dispassionate manner.”


Dr. Karl BenzioFounder, Executive Director and Psychiatrist at Lighthouse Network Karl Benzio, MD: “The Hippocratic Oath is profound in its message as it is a spiritual covenant to hold as the utmost priority the best for the patient and not the best for the healthcare professional or any other third party. ‘The best’ for the patient pertains to the ultimate spiritual and psychological benefits, as Hippocrates said he would not perform an abortion or euthanasia, which would prioritize the physical over the psychological and spiritual.

“Physicians have expertise and healing to impart to patients, but unless a bridge exists to reach patients, healing will be delayed, compromised or not delivered at all. The bridge is relationship, not only doctor-to-patient but also human-to-human. The first step in building this bridge requires communicating understanding, sensitivity, respect, dignity and honor. This is why healthcare professionals ask probing questions, and our demeanor while patients respond allows them to invite us into their pain. Our responses of sympathy and empathy show we are listening and feeling the hurt, fear or uncertainty that can deeply harm them.


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