Emotional Intelligence in Healthcare

Just how important are emotional/relational factors such as empathy, trust and respect when it comes to empirical clinical outcomes?

good bedside manner has received much anecdotal support in everyday conversation where we hear friends, colleagues and patients refer to a good bedside manner as essential to comprehensive and effective healthcare.

But does the research evidence corroborate these notions?

Emotionally Intelligent Physicians are Effective Physicians

For those of us in primary care medicine who have devoted much of our working lives to developing empathic relationships with our patients, research findings of improved patient outcomes among the more empathic physicians are very gratifying indeed.”

Fred Makham, M.D.
Department of Family and Community Medicine

The proposition that emotional intelligence is essential in the provision of effective healthcare services has been verified by a recent landmark study.

Intuitively we have felt, as healthcare providers and/or patients, that the quality of the provider-patient relationship is integral to positive treatment outcomes. And research is proving that a good bedside manner is a lot more than a spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down.

A research team from Jefferson Medical College (JMC) of Thomas Jefferson University, USA has provided empirical evidence that confirms the positive impact of emotional intelligence on treatment outcomes.

Their longitudinal research study of 29 physicians over a 3 year period successfully quantified a relationship between empathy and positive treatment outcome. This suggests that physicians’ levels of empathy are strongly associated with their clinical effectiveness. (See Academic Medicine, March, 2011).

Empathy, as a core component of emotional intelligence, encompasses a range of skills in understanding, managing, and appropriately responding to the emotions and experiences of others. With the clinical importance of empathy being confirmed, the JMC researchers have also emphasised the importance of assessing and enhancing empathetic competencies in undergraduate and graduate medical education.

It is therefore encouraging and important to know that emotional intelligence, and hence empathy skills, can be enhanced at any stage of healthcare practitioners’ professional development.

The Heart of Healthcare Professionals

The JMC study above supports and augments the proposed standards for effective undergraduate medical education published in 2009 by the UK’s General Medical Council (GMC) in Tomorrow’s Doctors.

The first page of this publication, outlining the duties of doctors registered with the GMC, places a primary emphasis on the quality of the relationship between patient and doctor. The publication places and emphasis on respect and trust stating that, “patients must be able to trust doctors with their lives and health. To justify that trust you must show respect for human life…”

The publication goes on to describe, among others, the following duties that doctors should adhere to:

  • Treat patients as individuals and respect their dignity
  • Treat patients politely and considerately
  • Listen to patients and respond to their concerns and preferences
  • Respect patients’ right to reach decisions with you about their treatment and care
  • Be honest and open and act with integrity

Intuition, recognized practice guidelines, and now empirical research have placed issues of the heart at the heart of effective healthcare. But what exactly are the practical consequences of neglecting these “softer” issues in clinical practice?

The Bad Press of Poor Behaviour

If you’ve watched the news lately, you likely have seen more and more health professionals and organisations come under heavy public scrutiny.

Despite any and all best intentions, this media exposure typically facilitates a downward spiral by demoralising doctors and staff. The chaos of quick fixes ends up driving bad behaviour and habits further into the shadows, rather than positively fixing them.

….With this in mind, how do we promote empathy and emotional intelligence in the work of healthcare professionals in every discipline?

And what could the barriers be to the development of these competencies?

Barriers to Emotional Intelligence in Healthcare

Before we start “bashing” healthcare professionals for having poor bedside manner, let us recognise that many healthcare providers are increasingly confronted with interpersonal and organisational challenges that place immense emotional and physical strain on their already stretched resources.

In the face of these huge challenges many healthcare professionals remain astoundingly attentive to the emotional/relational dimension of their services to patients and professional partnerships.

But under conditions of such high stress, and without adequate support, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain the type of empathic relationships (with patients and colleagues) that will ensure the highest quality of patient care and clinical performance.

In the process of “surviving” the demands of any demanding work environment, we all tend to develop behaviours, thinking patterns, relationship styles that are our attempts to make best of limited resources and difficult challenges.

However, these inevitably self-preserving “survival strategies” can begin to undermine empathic and emotionally intelligent services.

In light of this, a limited level empathy in healthcare can be thought of as a “symptom” of a limited level of resources and support, both personal and organisational.

However, with adequate support, personal insight and practical EI resources, healthcare professionals will naturally begin to establish empathic and respectful human relationships.

The job of change agents within healthcare systems is therefore that of removing barriers to the expression of the inherent human potentials for mutuality, consideration and empathy.

Unblocking Emotional Intelligence in Healthcare Practice

So how do we then remove these interpersonal and organisational barriers?

The answer is not straightforward since the scope of the barriers to this goal is complex and multi-faceted. Broadly stated however, a comprehensive change intervention must simultaneously address the individual and collective barriers that block the development of empathic provider-patient relationships.

EI Coaching – Beyond Individual Barriers

At an individual level healthcare professionals need to be supported and coached in becoming aware of the patterns of thinking, behaving and feeling that undermine productive and empathic relationships. The motivational paradigms orworldviews that underpin these personality patterns must also be understood in order for individuals to be coached towards more emotionally intelligent healthcare practices.

Also, as healthcare professionals become more aware of their emotions and personality style patterns, the impact of these patterns on team and organisational functioning (e.g. in multi-disciplinary teams) can be identified and moderated. The ideal context for this process is that of a coaching relationship where providers are given ongoing support, tools and insight in developing their EI competencies.

Emotional intelligence coaching for healthcare providers builds on the realisation that the key to greater productivity in the healthcare sector lies in developing the people in its people driven service. To put it simply:

  • The “input” of the healthcare service is people (patients who are ill)
  • The “process” of the healthcare service is people (staff providing services and care)
  • The “output” of the healthcare service is people (healthy and healing patients)

Therefore to improve your output or results you have to improve your process i.e. develop and support your people who are providing services and care.

Emotional Intelligence has been proven by countless research studies to improve productivity and workplace performance in a wide range of service sectors including healthcare. High quality services, including healthcare, are delivered by people through high quality relationships.

EI is the only system specifically geared towards developing these relationships that drive effectiveness. Developing emotional intelligence is essential to relationship building and people skills, which in turn produces better outcomes and hence improved effectiveness in your staff, department and organisation.

Let us prove to you the effectivess of EI. We will give you a full EI profile and 90 minute coaching session worth £375. If you would like more information about how to develop Emotional Intelligence in healthcare please contact Damien Deighan at:

damien@emotionalintelligence.tv or (0)1212 893288

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