Among the qualities that make an excellent physician, emotional intelligence ranks pretty high.

A senior woman receiving a vaccination shot from her doctor — showing empathy towards patients can go a long way towards making them feel better. Image credits: CDC/ Judy Schmidt

Emotional intelligence, a lot of which can be manifested as empathy, revolves around understanding your emotions and the emotions of people around you. According to a new study, emotional intelligence can not only lead to better doctor-patient relationships but also help make physicians more resilient to the stresses of the profession and less likely to experience burnout. But there’s an interesting trade-off.

Scientists from Loyola University Medical Center found that young physicians as a group have a median score of 110, compared to an average score of 100 for the entire population. There were no significant differences between males and females.

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For the study, the team recruited 31 pediatric and 16 med-peds residents at Loyola. A resident is a physician who has finished his medical school and currently practicing in a hospital under the supervision of an attending physician. A med-ped doctor combines pediatrics and internal medicine.

Residents in their third and fourth years of training scored higher in assertiveness (109) than residents in their first and second years (100), which can perhaps be attributed to the skills they gathered in the extra training years, as well as the confidence they gained during their training. But interestingly, as assertiveness continued to increase, emotional intelligence started to drop — from 115.5 in the first two years, to 110 in the 3rd and 4th year. This forces a very interesting and difficult question: does assertiveness come at the risk of empathy? Does it mean that the “bossier” we get, the more we lose our ability understand others? If so, then focusing on emotional intelligence for people in leadership positions would be much more important. Or is it simply that medical students lose some of their empathy along the way? Whatever the case is, the implications are intriguing.

The thing is, unlike IQ, emotional intelligence can be taught. This study indicates that investing a course or two in emotional intelligence could make a big difference in the well-being of the doctors, as well as the patients. The authors also carried out four workshops on emotional intelligence with study participants and found that even such a short intervention can make a big difference. Perhaps

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

Journal Reference: Ramzan Shahid, Jerold Stirling, William Adams. Assessment of Emotional Intelligence in Pediatric and Med-Peds Residents. Journal of Contemporary Medical Education, 2016; 4 (4): 153 DOI: 10.5455/jcme.20170116015415