Medicine is one of the professions that is closely linked with selfless service to humanity. A duty to care for people of all gender, race, social status, age, health condition at their desperate and lowest point of need. This is why empathy in medicine is imperative.
Even the Hippocratic oath bears testament to this obligation. One word comes to mind when care is mentioned, that word is empathy. Empathy in medicine is described as the ability to relate to another person’s emotions and feelings as though you are experiencing it for yourself. It is putting yourself in another person’s shoes and understanding their emotions.
Studies have shown how empathy is an important factor in practicing medicine. It helps to cement a doctor-patient relationship by creating trust, instigating compliance, makes for good health outcomes and leaves both the physician and patient immensely satisfied.
It is believed that caring and empathetic doctors are better off at calming their patients and getting them to take their medication as at when due than doctors who are emotionally detached from their patients.
Empathy also helps the doctor in garnering information from the patient which is crucial to making the right diagnosis and prescribing accurate treatment.
Most people tend to have certain preferences when it comes to their choice of a doctor. A patient waltzing into the clinic and demanding to see a particular doctor is not an uncommon scenario.
Patients are more comfortable with doctors who resonate with their condition and communicates with them effectively. This comes with no surprises as empathy has been linked to communication. But does gender play a role in the patient’s choice of a doctor? A study published in the US national library of Medicine answered yes to this question.
This brings forth another question, which gender of doctors is more empathetic? This question is quite tricky as empathy in medicine is elusive and it is subjective. However, studies have shown that female doctors are more likely to be empathetic to their patients as opposed to their male counterparts.
Since communication is a core part of empathy, researchers at John Hopkins school of public health used audiotapes, videotapes and direct observation to report that female doctors listen more, ask questions about emotions, and spend more time talking to their patients and counseling them on lifestyle and stress-related issues during medical visits. Hence they tend to have longer medical visits than their male colleagues.
Statistics of Empathy in Medicine
To further buttress this point, another study published in the Journal of American Medical Association showed that patients treated by female students have the probability of surviving their sickness and not being readmitted within a 30-day frame, than those treated by male doctors.
The study cut across a large population of about 1.5 million patients aged 65 years old that were admitted to general hospitals all over the United States. According to the statistics of the research, patients die within 30 days of admission occurred in 11.07% of patients treated by female doctors, while 11.49% of death was recorded in patients treated by male doctors. For readmission status within 30 days, 15.02% was recorded for patients treated by female doctors, while 15.57% was recorded for patients treated by male doctors.
Although it may appear that there is no much difference in the figure, these numbers are large enough to negatively affect the health outcome of patients. It should be noted that figures still remained the same even after factors such as the nature of the patient’s illness, level of physician’s training, age and experience of the physician were all taken into consideration.
The proposed reason behind these points to the empathetic nature of female doctors. Female doctors likely followed clinical rules and guidelines consistently and communicated better with patients without using medical terminologies, while male doctors, on the other hand, tend to avoid addressing the complicated nature of patient’s problems.
A similar study carried out on heart attack patients in Florida recorded a low mortality rate for both male and female patients treated by male doctors. The researchers built their survey around heart attack patients admitted to Florida hospitals between 1991 and 2010. They stated that women treated by male doctors had a very slim chance of survival.
Even medical students are not left out in “the measure of empathy as related to gender”. A study carried out in Brazil that sampled a total of 595 medical students at the University of Catarina (Brazil) compared data of empathy means of both male and female students. They found that empathy means were higher in female medical students as compared to the male students. They recorded a mean of 10.6 in males and 9.3 in females. They also found a decline in empathy as the students proceeded further with their course of study.
Based on scientific evidence and research, it would seem that female doctor are more likely to relate better with their patients than male doctors. Perhaps aside scientific evidence, gender expectations may play a role in determining the level of empathy in medicine, with more emphasis being placed on the female doctors. Females are naturally expected to be more empathetic as they are more in tune with their emotions.
But this display of empathy may have side effects, as yet again Proved by scientific studies. The need to take on the problems of their patients on a personal level may have a negative effect on their mental health if it goes on for far too long. This could lead to burning out also referred to as compassion fatigue.
A doctor experiencing burn out will feel emotionally drained, frustrated, irritable and would be detached from the patient, these emotional changes distort the relationship between the patient and the doctor, making the doctor less motivated to be friendly or accommodating towards the patient. More so the doctor becomes mistake-prone and is likely to make errors during the course of carrying out a diagnosis or prescribing treatment. This without question defeats the purpose of empathy. Studies have shown that female doctors are more prone to suffering from burn out than male doctors.
While female doctors start off by feeling out of tune with their emotions and then proceed to feel cut off from people and their work environment to finally feeling overall dissatisfaction with their level of proficiency, male doctors on the other hand first become removed from their patients and work environment before they become emotionally worn – out.
It is advised that doctors should know how to maintain a balance between their work and personal lives. In as much as empathy towards patients is valuable, they should know when to draw the line to avoid being captives of compassion fatigue.