Emotional Intelligence in Medicine: A Two-Way Street

September 18, 2019

Perspectives in Primary Care (formally the Primary Care Review) features perspectives from practitioners and students representing organizations, practices, and institutions across the country and around the world. All opinions expressed in this article are owned by the author(s).

In the early evenings after work, I thoroughly enjoy taking brisk walks.  Walks are a great opportunity to exercise of course, but I also cherish making time for myself to process the many thoughts that can occupy the mind of a busy wife, mother, pediatrician and medical director. My walks are typically the only time of the day when I can quietly meditate, ruminate, prioritize concerns or simply restore my soul.  As I walk, I get to see families pushing strollers filled with young children, dogs walking their humans, and even the stray teenager riding a scooter or bike around the neighborhood. When passing by on the sidewalks, we often greet each other with the basic “Hi”, “Good Evening” or just a simple smile.  After a while, you become accustomed to seeing the same people and begin to develop a familiarity with your own neighborhood.

Over the course of the past few months, I’ve observed an elderly gentleman who consistently wears a long gray tunic. Although he does not speak English, after many walks passing each other, I began to gently bow my head every time I saw him. Following a few weeks of simple head bows, I noticed how he began smiling at me when we passed each other and most recently, he has started waving. Although we don’t speak the same language, practice the same religion, or even know each other’s names, I’ve sensed that through the use of simple gestures showing respect, kindness and admiration, this older gentleman somehow realizes that I “see” him, I accept our differences and that I truly enjoy witnessing his slow but purposeful walks out and about in the community exercising. My encounters with this gentleman have reminded me of the importance of emotional intelligence, especially within the practice of medicine.

As a physician, emotional intelligence helps me to demonstrate compassion towards my patients, patients’ caregivers and my fellow colleagues.  Knowing when to hold the hand of an anxious mother, when to sit quietly next to a patient struggling with depression, or when to challenge a child’s poor eating habits, are just a few examples of a clinician’s need to develop expertise in the realm of emotional intelligence.  Discerning when to offer a word of encouragement, to share a lesson learned, or just listen to a colleague who is struggling, comes from many years of developing connections with the people we encounter and live this life with. By listening carefully and attentively, when acknowledging questions and concerns, you become more approachable and trustworthy.

Never discredit how facial expressions, body posture and tone of voice can impact the patients we serve and the people we interact with each day. As a pediatrician, I have experienced countless times how a caring and sincere smile can calm the anxieties of a new mother, how a fist bump can bring comfort to a worried teenager, or how simply embracing a crying toddler can bring peace in an instant. It is often the simplest gestures of kindness, respect and admiration that can help build trusting relationships with patients, caregivers and colleagues. Be present, be authentic, be compassionate and the people you are serving and helping will reward you with their trust.

Published research confirms that physicians who can emotionally engage with patients have better outcomes and higher patient satisfaction scores. When a patient perceives that his/her physician cares and listens to their concerns, they are more likely to comply with medical recommendations and return for follow up visits. Isn’t this what every physician should strive for? It is also important to note that as the healthcare industry continues to shift from a fee-for-service reimbursement model to a value-based system, physician reimbursements will be tied to patient outcomes and satisfaction. Essentially, physicians will be rewarded for the quality of care they deliver.  The proof that emotionally intelligent, engaged, compassionate treatment of patients and their families can markedly improve outcomes and satisfaction, truly represents a win-win opportunity for everyone.

Walking is one way I avoid physician burnout and has consistently helped me to refresh and prepare myself for the next day of work. Over the years, I’ve learned that in order to be present and to continue caring for the needs of others, I must first commit to taking care of myself. I continue to hone my emotional intelligence based on the positive feedback and constructive criticism I receive from the people around me. I also know that I thrive and grow best when observing and benefiting from the emotional intelligence of others.

Those who lead by example have always been an encouragement to me.  When a colleague recently left a post-it-note, complete with smiley face, stating “You’re doing a great job”, I kept it at my desk for months because I felt valued. When a neighbor goes out of their way to ask me about my day, it reminds me that people still care and that I too am a person, not just a worker bee. When I walk around our neighborhood and an older gentleman waves at me because I gently bowed my head to acknowledge his presence, I realize how appreciated I feel when someone else takes the time to “see” me.  Emotional intelligence is definitely a two-way street, although sometimes it can be a sidewalk too.

Learn more about primary care challenges and innovation solutions to overcome them at the 2019 Primary Care Conference on October 5th in Boston, MA:



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