Emotional IQ Can Make You a Better Physician

Jim Fitzgibbon

Physicians spend many years studying to become medical providers. During the course of their studies, they learn how to interpret lab results and make the proper diagnosis. However, one of the most crucial skills for a physician can’t be found in a textbook and is often lost in the noise: the ability to interact with patients on a human, emotional level.

The Art of Being Human: What is Emotional Intelligence?

According to Marc Brackett, professor and founding director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and the Child Study Center, emotional intelligence “gives us the ability to read our instinctive feelings and those of others. It also allows us to understand and label emotions as well as express and regulate them.”

The concept of emotional intelligence came into focus in 1990. It was the product of Peter Salovey, president of Yale University, and John Mayer, a professor at the University of New Hampshire. Over the last 28 years, since its initial inception, the idea of emotional intelligence has been studied and evaluated carefully to get a better understanding of this vital component to professional and personal success.

The “Lone Healer” Concept Being Challenged: Why is Emotional Intelligence Important for a Physician Leader Today and in the Future

For both physicians and non-physicians alike, emotional intelligence can be a reliable predictor of professional success. Leadership speaker and author, Sara Canaday, states that “we might be hired for our technical talents, but we are often fired because we lack emotional intelligence.”

Patients are vulnerable when they come to see a physician. No one arrives at a hospital or medical office to chit chat and casually spend time. There is something wrong with them, they are worried, they seek help and guidance, and it may involve their mortality. There is an underlying fear and a patient is a person, not just a case study to solve.

For physicians, emotional intelligence is even more critical since their interaction with patients can be the difference between life and death. Also, as our healthcare system changes to become more collaborative, the idea of physician emotional intelligence is further tested.

For example, in the Journal of Graduate Medical Education, an article titled “A Systematic Review of Physician Leadership and Emotional Intelligence” stated that “successful health systems are actively responding to consumer and regulatory pressures to decrease costs and increase quality and value” by creating innovations in care models. These “new models require a high degree of collaboration among physicians, between physicians and organizations, and between healthcare organizations.”

Furthermore, while new healthcare system models demand collaboration and, more importantly, emotional intelligence, it runs counter to years of traditional physician ideologies. In the past, “physicians have traditionally functioned in a culture that celebrates the physician as a “lone healer” and an independent decision maker, perhaps reflecting the fact that persons attracted to and selected for careers in medicine are characteristically independent, self-directed, and confident.” However, this concept is now being challenged by the current shifts in care and delivery occurring in the healthcare system.

Moreover, “effective leadership in healthcare will be needed to execute this shift,” with many suggesting that “emotional intelligence is a critical healthcare leadership competency.” Thus, “emotional intelligence has been advocated as a key competency in all clinical settings – from the boardroom and chairperson’s office to the ward and the bedside.” This applies just as strongly to hospital administrators.

How Does a Physician Gauge Their Emotional Intelligence? The “360 Degree Assessment”

Many adults, if asked about their own emotional intelligence would rate it as high. However, according to Brackett, “many of us tend to overestimate our own emotional intelligence.”

For physicians, trying to gauge their emotional intelligence, it is essential to evaluate their daily professional life and interactions with both patients and staff. For example, how does a physician handle these four fundamental interaction problems:

Interaction Problem 1: Can a physician show the appropriate level of empathy toward patients and staff?

Interaction Problem 2: Does a physician, when conversing with a patient or staff member, use words or terms the patient or staff member does not understand?

Interaction Problem 3: When interacting with a patient or staff member, does a physician look at their digital device instead of the patient or staff member?

Interaction Problem 4: Does a physician act impatient when answering questions from patients, patients’ family members, medical staff or hospital administrators?

For a further look at emotional intelligence, it is best to conduct a 360-degree assessment. The first part covers the physician’s self-assessment. After going through the interaction problems above, a physician should also ask themselves the following questions:

Question 1: In the past, how have you dealt with a stressful situation?

Question 2: If you have a disagreement with a patient, member of the medical staff or healthcare system administrator, how do you resolve it?

Question 3: When have you been wrong? How did you right the situation?

Question 4: In the case of misdiagnosis, how did you discover the situation (who brought it to your attention), and how did you resolve the issue?

Question 5: How does a physician handle issues with new policies and health system regulations imposed by the board or system administrators?

With a self-assessment done, a physician should now elicit feedback from peers and supervisors. This step provides valuable feedback that can shed light on the physician’s situation. Per Sara Canaday “we often see ourselves differently than others do.”

Can Improvements in Emotional Intelligence Be Made?

Once a physician has the results of their assessment, they can then go about improving their emotional intelligence. First, they should be mindful of their interactions with patients and staff. By knowing their limitations and deficits, a physician can make an effort to change their habits and become more engaged on an emotional level. Secondly, before a physician engages with a staff member, administrator or a patient, they should take a moment to organize their thoughts before they speak. Lastly, a physician should find an outlet to manage their emotions and clear their minds, so they are better prepared to handle a variety of situations.

Emotional Intelligence: A Must in the Future of Healthcare

For physicians, emotional intelligence has always been critical. However, with significant shifts in the healthcare system, emotional intelligence, especially with respect to physician leadership, is needed now more than ever. Thus, physicians should assess their emotional intelligence via a 360-degree assessment and use the assessment’s findings to drive change. Furthermore, it will be the emotional intelligence of physicians and their positions as leaders that will determine the future of the healthcare system.

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