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“Won’t you sit for a while, Doctor?”

You can interpret this question simply or consider it more deeply, finding yourself amidst a struggle that stresses the minds of almost every young physician—finding a balance between efficiency and empathy.

If you are like me, then you can probably appreciate the importance of both these terms. Don’t we all want our doctors to be efficient but also kind? No one wants to feel dehumanized after paying a visit to the doctor. But with the decrease in resident hours and the increase in the amount of paperwork and forms to be filled, the quality of direct patient time has been going down. Residents today spend roughly eight minutes per day with each patient, which is only a quarter of the amount of time they spend sitting behind a computer screen. As a result, empathy is routinely sacrificed to uphold the efficiency of the hospital system as a whole. This sacrifice, although allowing patients to be cared for in a timely manner, fuels both the patient’s and the physician’s discontent with modern medicine.

But does it have to be like this? Should the first hard lesson a young doctor has to learn be how to stow away his or her own humanity and compassion? The very attributes that had initially led to the decision to choose medicine as a career?

Doctor in discussion with a patient in exam room.

Image Source: Thomas Barwick

While there are doctors who view compassion as a weakness and prefer efficiency over empathy, it doesn’t have to be like that. We need doctors who can be compassionate as well as competent in their work. Over the years, with an increased focus on improving technical skills, the focus on the ability of young doctors to communicate and behave with empathy has decreased even further. But as pointed out in a BBC Magazine article, the vast majority of clinical interactions are not particularly related to technical matters. On the contrary, the vast majority of clinical encounters are, in fact, related to proper communication, and this necessitates that doctors find a balance between empathy and efficiency because patients want their doctors to sit with them, listen to them, and know how they feel.

Feature Image Source: Doctors with patient, 1999 by Seattle Municipal Archives

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