Emotional intelligence: Why doctors need to develop this skill

By Alistair Gardiner
Published December 21, 2021

Key Takeaways

LinkedIn posts about emotional intelligence in the workplace are a dime a dozen—and for good reason. Authors of a study published in BMC Medical Education define this trending phrase as “the ability of a person to understand and respond to one’s own and others’ emotions and … to guide one’s thoughts and actions.” Imagine a workplace without that.

Emotional intelligence is essential for all human interaction, the authors wrote—including doctor-patient, doctor-doctor, and doctor-other HCPs. Empathy improves levels of clinical care and patient outcomes; it’s also key to managing all the relationships involved in providing treatment. Showing compassion can help speed a patient’s recovery and increase rates of adherence to prescribed treatments.

And yet, as pointed out in the study, emotional intelligence isn’t usually part of medical school curriculums. As such, this article will break down why emotional intelligence is vital for physicians, and how you can develop yours.

What is emotional intelligence?

According to an article published by Regis College, you can parse emotional intelligence into five aspects: 

  • Self-awareness. Having a keen understanding of how you’re feeling is the first step. This should extend to being cognizant of how you interact with those around you.

  • Self-regulation. Keeping your emotions under control and not allowing yourself to be influenced by them. This allows you to remain calm and deliberate in your actions and choices. 

  • Motivation. Emotionally intelligent people tend to be motivated not just in their work, but in their personal lives. They work hard to better themselves.

  • Empathy. Not to be confused with sympathy. Emotional intelligence comes with the ability to put yourself in others’ shoes and show compassion for their struggles. 

  • Social skills. Effective communication underpins emotional intelligence. It facilitates collaboration during group tasks, and can assist when you assume a leadership position. 

Authors of a review, published by the  Journal of Graduate Medical Education (JGME), state that emotional intelligence is “an important component of leadership development for physicians in general.” The review found that studies across medical specialties recommend cultivating emotional intelligence training as a component of leadership programs. Authors cite studies that used real-world examples of emotional intelligence training to improve patient outcomes in health systems from San Francisco to Cleveland. 

But if your employer isn’t offering any training of this sort, what can you do to bolster your emotional intelligence?

Developing emotional intelligence

Improving the skills listed above is about finding what works best for you. Change begins with a willingness to work at it. 

According to Regis College, this 10-step program can help physicians tune into their own emotional intelligence.

  1. Focus on what can’t be measured. 

  2. Make courtesy more important than efficiency. 

  3. Regard patient satisfaction as fool’s gold.

  4. Measure to improve, not to impress.

  5. Decentralize the authority to say “yes.”

  6. Shift from "our service" to the "guest’s story."

  7. Harness the motivating power of imagination.

  8. Create a climate of satisfaction. 

  9. Cease using competitive rewards to motivate people.

  10.  Close the gap between knowing and doing.

Of course, these are just optional guidelines to push you closer to emotional awareness. The aforementioned BMC Medical Education review notes that emotional intelligence can be developed through other means. For example, one study found that urban-raised medical students placed in situations where they came to understand the lives of people living in rural areas and in under-resourced settings ultimately developed greater emotional intelligence than their peers.

Authors concluded that there is a “need for integration of EI training into undergraduate medical education” and that “a complete and holistic medical education cannot be devoid of emphasis on soft skills such as communication, empathy, ethics and emotional intelligence.” This could come in the form of cognitive reflection exercises, practical role-play scenarios, socio-drama techniques, or other methods. 

According to an article published by Psychology Today, studies have shown that success in medicine is influenced far more by emotional intelligence than by technical competency. In a study described in the article, researchers found that training directors using a combination of emotional intelligence, self-care techniques, and leadership skills can be an effective intervention against burnout in residency programs.

The best time to start is now

Physicians are often seen as the “emotional thermostat” of their team, which means that keeping your emotions under control (and picking up on the emotional cues of others) is critically important. Get to know your patterns and triggers, how well you regulate yourself emotionally, how well you manage difficult conversations, and the extent to which you empathize with colleagues and patients. 

If the evidence above is anything to go by, emotional intelligence could transform you from a good doctor into a great one.

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