Empathy in Medicine

This is part of a title of a commentary in the JAMA. Would have reacted in the JAMA but found my blog more appropriate. The subtitle is a neurobiological perspective. This commentary does provide an update on the neurobiological findings on empathy but they’re not new and can also be read on this blog. What did catch my eye was the suggestion made by the author that overvaluing scientific measurement excludes empathy, as if being a technical good doctor almost excludes being an empathetic doctor which is to my opinion a big mistakes. There are brilliant doctors, even skilled surgeons, who also do have empathy for their patients and use the best techniques and medicine. Doctors have been searching for new treatments to better the health of their patients like this functional medicine which has proved to be a great option for those in need.

Another misconception is the confusion between good bedside manners and empathy. As if a doctor can not have good bedside manners without empathy. Good bedside manners are a prerequisite for physicians, empathy is a quality someone has developed during life. My point is that good bedside manners is something each doctor can and has to learn as well as sympathy when called for. Empathy is a quality not every human or doctor possesses. Moreover, experience and age enhance the use of empathy. Not to say that lack of experience or being young excludes the possibility for showing empathy, there are still natural talents out there.

Doctors have to learn to handle their empathy. Most medical students decline in empathy during their third year of med school, the year in which most students start to interact with patients to some extend. According to this pain management doctor, Exposure to others’ pain and distress may influence the young doctor to a more or lesser extend. Some down regulation of empathy during first years of patient care may in the beginning have some beneficial consequences.

Overall, having empathy, being able to handle it in such a way that you can empathetically help patients without loosing your own balance improves patient care. Medical teachers can educate empathy. They can even start of with the neurobiology of empathy, making the subject less laden. Empathy needs more attention in medical education, that’s the point I want to emphasize and is also the opinion of the author of this commentary

Medical educators can teach students about the neurobiological correlates of empathy, demonstrate behavioral skills that build an empathic connection, and scientifically validate the importance of empathy in the patient physician relationship, while also teaching self-regulation strategies that may help prevent emotional distress during medical training and other challenging situations.

What do you think?

Riess, H. (2010). Empathy in Medicine–A Neurobiological Perspective JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association, 304 (14), 1604-1605 DOI: 10.1001/jama.2010.1455