Emotional intelligence can help make better doctors

By Al Saint Jacques, MDLinx
Published March 28, 2017

Key Takeaways

Among the qualities that go into making an excellent physician is emotional intelligence. Researchers from Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood, IL, as well as other centers, have been studying emotional intelligence in physicians as a way to improve patient care and physicians’ well-being. In a new study, for example, Loyola researchers report that physicians-in-training scored in the high range of emotional intelligence, according to a study recently published in the Journal of Contemporary Medical Education.

Researchers explained that emotional intelligence is the ability for an individual to recognize and understand emotions in themselves and others, as well as to use this awareness to manage a physician’s behavior and relationships. Emotional intelligence plays a big role in determining a physician’s bedside manner. It helps patients to be more trusting, which in turn leads to better doctor-patient relationships, increased patient satisfaction, and better patient compliance. Emotional intelligence also can help make physicians more resilient to the stresses of the profession and less likely to experience burnout.

There have been several previous studies of emotional intelligence among physicians, but most studies have not included pediatric residents. To address this need, the Loyola study enrolled 31 pediatric and 16 med-peds residents at Loyola. All residents filled out the Bar-On Emotional Quotient Inventory 2.0, a validated 133-item online survey that assesses emotional intelligence skills.

In the study, the young physicians as a group had a median score of 110 on the emotional intelligence survey, which is considered in the high range. (The average score for the general population is 100.) The physicians who took part in the study scored the highest in the subcategories of impulse control (114), empathy (113), and social responsibility (112). They scored lowest in assertiveness (102), flexibility (102), and independence (101).

Residents in their third and fourth years of training scored higher in assertiveness (109) than residents in their first and second years (100). This could be related to the acquisition of new knowledge and skills and increased self-confidence as residents progress in their training. However, first- and second-year residents scored higher in empathy (115.5) than third- and fourth-year senior residents (110). “One could hypothesize: Does a resident’s level of assertiveness increase at the cost of losing empathy?” the authors noted.

There were no differences seen in emotional intelligence composite scores between males and females or between pediatric and med-peds residents.

Unlike IQ, emotional intelligence can be taught. “Educational interventions to improve resident emotional intelligence scores should focus on the areas of independence, assertiveness, and empathy,” the authors wrote. “These interventions should help them become assertive but should ensure they do not lose empathy.”

The Loyola pediatrics and med-peds residents recently went through an emotional intelligence educational program that consisted of four hours of workshops. Initial data show the intervention has increased residents’ emotional intelligence scores, including the subcomponents related to stress management and wellness.

The study was conducted by Ramzan Shahid, MD, associate professor and director of the pediatric residency program; Jerold Stirling, MD, professor and chair of Loyola’s department of pediatrics; and William Adams, MA, a biostatistician in the health sciences division of Loyola University Chicago.

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