What Doctors Feel: How Emotions Affect the Practice of Medicine by Danielle Ofri
Published by Beacon Press on June 4, 2013
my rating: ★★★★
Goodreads avg: 4.16 (as of 2019-09-27)
Physicians are assumed to be objective, rational beings, easily able to detach as they guide patients and families through some of life’s most challenging moments. But doctors’ emotional responses to the life-and-death dramas of everyday practice have a profound impact on medical care. And while much has been written about the minds and methods of the medical professionals who save our lives, precious little has been said about their emotions. In What Doctors Feel, Dr. Danielle Ofri has taken on the task of dissecting the hidden emotional responses of doctors, and how these directly influence patients.
How do the stresses of medical life—from paperwork to grueling hours to lawsuits to facing death—affect the medical care that doctors can offer their patients? Digging deep into the lives of doctors, Ofri examines the daunting range of emotions—shame, anger, empathy, frustration, hope, pride, occasionally despair, and sometimes even love—that permeate the contemporary doctor-patient connection. Drawing on scientific studies, including some surprising research, Dr. Danielle Ofri offers up an unflinching look at the impact of emotions on health care.
What Doctors Feel explores how doctors’ emotions impact both their own lives and the lives of their patients. This isn’t a non-fic where you’ll find yourself getting bored. Dr. Ofri writes conversationally and includes specific examples from her years as a doctor to get her point across. The only downside being that you’ll have to be someone who can stomach hearing about some less-than-pleasant things. I didn’t feel myself losing interest at any point while reading, and found this to be quite a compelling read. I was expecting there to be more of an academic focus, but Dr. Ofri relies fairly heavily on anecdotal storytelling. Make no mistake: she always specifies whether her assertions can be backed up by solid research or whether they are yet unexplored hypotheses. This combination helps the reader learn while also being able to tie everything discussed to real-life situations.
High empathy scores predict which students will excel in their clinical clerkships, who will be nominated by their peers for exemplary professionalism, and who will be ranked as highly empathic by residency program directors and by patients themselves.
One thing I found quite fascinating was the differences medical students can experience during their third year of med school. This is the time students spend in clinic, following interns and residents around while learning all they can. This third year can be a roll of the dice and make or break the student’s education as well as influence their path moving forward. Medical students also adjust to the humor used by physicians and in doing so can begin using phrases that phase out empathy — by making jokes about drug addicts, for instance, instead of empathizing with their difficulties. Indeed, there is a documented decline in empathy at this point in a medical student’s education. While Dr. Ofri is clear to caution that these results are preliminary, studies have shown that patients of doctors with higher empathy scores experience things like better medication compliance, higher quality of life, and even less severe colds.
When continuing into residency, Dr. Ofri shares how there is little to no time for clinicians to process emotional situations. She shares specific instances of doctors who witnessed traumatic deaths without so much as blinking, only to break down later on in the throes of PTSD. Additionally, doctors are driven to strive for perfection. It makes sense after all, patients can die from mistakes. But there is often a dichotomy perceived: either you are a perfect doctor or you are a failure, no grey areas allowed. In the medical field, it is difficult to learn from one’s mistakes without feeling an overwhelming sense of shame and self-doubt — and shame can prevent someone from coming forward to admit their mistake. Coming forward may be the right thing to do, but studies have also shown that acknowledging and discussing such errors leads to changes in clinicians’ behavior that prevent future mistakes.
Fear, like all emotions, is neither good nor bad; it is simply one of the normal states of being. Overwhelming fear can be incapacitating, as I learned during my first code. But appropriate fear, as I witnessed in my obstetrician, can be crucial for good medical care, especially during critical situations.
Overall, I really enjoyed this read and recommend it to anyone interested in the inner workings of the healthcare industry, particularly where the impact of emotions is concerned.