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

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