Proper communication is essential in the relationship between physicians and patients. One important element of this communication is physician empathy, or their ability to understand a patient's situation and feelings. Empathy is considered a core component of medical training since it leads to a number of overall benefits, but despite this, it may be declining in the medical profession.
To better understand how empathy changes for trainees during medical school and residency, a systematic review—the most powerful type of study—was performed. Eighteen studies that tracked fluctuations in empathy from 1990-2010 were analyzed. Overall, the review suggested empathy decreases during the course of medical training, especially for trainees in the clinical practice phase. Though researchers were unable to determine the exact reasons for this, many factors may be responsible.
Distress was considered the most likely factor to explain the decline. The burnout, reduced quality of life and depression many medical trainees experience could possibly lead to a gradual decrease in empathetic tendencies. Increased workload and “information flooding” that have accelerated in our modern age may also be to blame. Finally, the public perception that physicians get paid too much for unsatisfactory results and are blamed for many of the health-care system ills despite having no control over them could be another reason. This notion also carries over to established medical professionals, and is one of many reasons physicians are plagued with unfortunate pitfalls.
Physicians are not to blame, and it can be argued that they are victims in our increasingly complicated health-care system. Nonetheless, physical therapy always has and always will be a health-care specialty founded on empathy. Physical therapists focus with each patient on a one-on-one basis to determine the source of their pain or movement disorder, and then carefully design a treatment plan that's right for them, communicating every step of the way. For personalized, dedicated care that's empathetic to each patient, see a physical therapist first the next time you experience any aches, pains or movement issues.
-As reported in the August '11 issue ofAcademic Medicine