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Emotional intelligence in clinical practice

June Messenger 2019, Latest News Archive, Medical Matters, Messenger | Posted June 13, 2019
Last month, I had the privilege of spending a couple evenings talking to some of Alberta’s medical and surgical residents about physician leadership. I left each of those discussions invigorated by their interest, enthusiasm and passion for being future healthcare leaders. Times like this fill me with confidence that the future of the medical profession is in good hands.

However, there was a comment that came up in the discussion that I’ve reflected on over the past few days. I want to share it with all of you because I feel it’s very pertinent to physician leadership and provides some food for thought about where health care is going over the next few years.

During a session, a young colleague told me that throughout medical training, students are often encouraged to manage, bury or ignore their emotions, as there is a belief that emotions can lead to bad decision-making. Medical training has instilled this belief directly and indirectly for decades, but this comment made me think about it in more detail. Perhaps suppressing emotion is one of the reasons physicians sometimes struggle as leaders. This could also be related to our increased struggles as clinicians.

How does emotion impact leadership?

You may wonder why suppressing emotion is an issue for physician leaders. I myself hadn’t given this much though until just recently, when I started doing some work with emotional intelligence and leadership. I have grown to appreciate that emotions can be a powerful source of information to improve the decisions we make. The challenge is being able to recognize our emotions and the information we observe through them, without allowing those emotions to overwhelm us or lead us to make a purely emotional decision.

Emotions can be a powerful tool for leaders, if understood and properly used to gather valuable information. People with high emotional intelligence embrace the information their emotions provide them and recognize the emotions in others that impact decisions and behaviours.

From a clinical perspective, one of the things we tend to hear from patients is that doctors don’t care about them anymore-that physicians have lost the sense of compassion patients need when they’re unwell. Conversely, we hear about physicians suffering with compassion fatigue and burnout. Is it that physicians are too compassionate? Or have we been ignoring or suppressing normal, human emotions for too long? I don’t know the answer, but we may want to start thinking more about it.

The role of emotional intelligence in the age of artificial intelligence

As the landscape of health care becomes increasingly digital (with technologies like machine learning and artificial intelligence), an essential requirement for the survival of the medical profession will be physicians delivering what only people-not computers-can uniquely provide, such as emotions, empathy and creativity. Technology’s democratization of knowledge means our profession no longer holds all the medical information that has historically been our strong suit.

The physicians that will thrive will be those who can provide the human side of medicine. Completely suppressing emotions will, eventually, no longer be viable.

The time I spent with Alberta’s next generation of physicians and surgeons invigorated me and reinforced my faith in our future leaders. It also raised concerns that we may be setting these young people up for future challenges if we don’t take time to understand the powerful role emotions can play in the work of physicians and physician leaders.

Your comments are appreciated,

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