Saturday, September 27, 2008

Do Doctors Have Time to Be Empathetic?

“But I also did not want to open the floodgates of emotion on an afternoon when the waiting room was overflowing. ”

One of the statements by Dr. Pauline Chen in her new column Doctor and Patient in the NY Times. The inspiration for the article was from a recent piece in the Annals of Internal Medicine which found that doctors missed the chance to give an empathetic statement the vast majority of time.

What Dr. Chen illustrates with her comment is the fear that the vast majority of doctors have and that is by being compassionate and empathetic that not only will it take too much time, but frankly is too uncomfortable for doctors to dare open the door. The reality is it doesn’t take much time and in fact may take less time. As Dr. Chen notes, when patients don’t get the feeling of a connection, they unconsciously fill this void some other way and lengthen the visit.

The issue isn’t whether doctors have enough time to be empathetic, which was suggested as the reason for doctors to miss 90 percent of the opportunities to provide a empathetic comment. The issue is whether medical students are trained adequately to be compassionate and thoughtful doctors.

It’s our training that fails us. It’s not the clock. The good news is like all other skills we developed in medical school, all doctors have the potential of becoming more empathetic with some simple behavioral interventions.

Until we as a profession realize that, it is no wonder patients feel increasingly alone when they access the healthcare system.

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