There are many in the public who believe that physicians are without emotions, that such apathy is necessary to survive the rigors of their daily experiences within a difficult and potentially psychologically draining profession. This is simply not the case however. In the face of this assertion comes the seemingly inevitable question of even if these emotions exist does this have any meaningful impacts? Considering the central role of emotions in navigating novel experiences and engaging with those different from oneself the answer appears very much to be yes.
Intuition may lead many to think that cultural competence is the last place where physicians’ personal emotions should be encouraged to take center stage as seems only logical that deferring wholly to clinical experience and knowledge would guarantee the best outcomes for all patients. This is far from the case. Training approaches which more intimately engage physicians emotionally seemingly represent a superior strategy for developing cultural competence. Focusing on eliciting positive emotion during patient encounters has for example been shown to lead to the use of more inclusive social categories leading physicians to be more likely to view themselves as being part of a larger group, facilitating empathy and increasing the capacity to see others as members of a common “in-group,” as opposed to “out-group.” Providers who experience higher levels of positive emotion during clinical encounters are also less likely to categorize patients in terms of their racial, ethnic, or cultural group and are more likely to view them as individuals.
Beyond the benefits more deeply exploring their emotions has for physicians in terms of engaging with other cultures increased awareness of doctors’ emotional states is vital for navigating within the often-unfamiliar culture of the medical profession itself. As the thought leader and social media personality Dr. Zubin Damania described it the transition into medicine closely mirrors that of muggle born wizards in Harry Potter as one is “plucked from muggle society and enters a world of arcane rituals, ancient rites…instead of robes we have white coats and stethoscopes instead of wands.” Without time to properly acclimate to their radically different world doctors, especially fledgling doctors, feel pressure to project intellectual, emotional, and physical prowess beyond what they truly possess. The undervaluing of physician emotions does nothing to combat inevitable culture shock of a transition this great and that failure has very real consequences reflected in burn out, depression and at the tragic extreme suicide.
Initiating reforms based on the understanding that doctor’s emotions are not only vital to their work and well being but also hold the potential to improve patient outcomes remains an enduring challenge within the medical system. In the status quo doctors are often forced to masquerade as strong and untroubled professionals even in their darkest and most self-doubting moments. For the sake of patients and the medical profession itself, it is imperative doctors be allowed to reconcile their degrees and social standing with an understanding of their essential humanity and the emotional weight that humanity carries.