If you are anything like me, you do a little research before choosing a doctor. Patients can easily learn about the traditional aspects of their doctor’s qualifications, such as the college they attended, years practicing, and awards earned, with a simple Internet search. However, it’s quite a bit harder to get a feel for a doctor’s emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is the ability to think and gather information about emotions, and then to use that information to achieve goals. Goals may include managing one’s own or others’ emotions, like staying calm, cheering someone up, or deciding how to share important news.
Whether or not your doctor practices emotional intelligence will make an enormous impact on the quality of your care and mental health. At best, a doctor lacking emotional intelligence can make you feel unheard, unimportant, or confused. At worst, you may end up feeling completely devalued or even traumatized.
Let’s travel back in time one week. Zoom in on me lying on the table in the OR. Right away, things started going wrong. I stayed on the table for a half hour while nurses darted around me like frightened birds, trying to find out where the surgeon was through every phone and pager in the room. One nurse even ran out into the hall to ask random people the question on everyone’s lips: “Where is Jeff?” I knew the instant he finally arrived because he owned that room. Even though my face was covered, I could feel him walk towards me, the nurses falling silent as he passed. He never paused his diatribe about paperwork and how he refuses to do another page today. He didn’t even stop when he put his hands on me. I remember thinking, he should see my face, speak my name, explain the procedure to me, anything to indicate that he knew he was touching a sentient, feeling being. That’s what an emotionally intelligent doctor would do. When he touched me, I felt like a piece of meat.
Next, the team couldn’t sedate me because of my low blood pressure. I was paralyzed when I heard this. That’s right, heard as in, overheard. No one said, “Your blood pressure is pretty low. Has this ever happened before?” No one said, “If we do this procedure right now, you won’t be able to have a sedative. How do you feel about proceeding?” Taking care of a patient means approaching him or her with empathy. A cornerstone of emotional intelligence, empathy consists of admitting ignorance about a person’s inner life and taking steps to remedy that ignorance by asking questions and imagining a different perspective. However, Dr. Jeff was too busy ranting about his least favorite nurses and why they should get fired to address me, much less ask for my opinion.
The team gave me Lidocaine, which didn’t cut it – pun intended. Apparently, Dr. Jeff remembered he was operating on a person because he finally spoke to me: “You are going to feel just a little pressure here.” I braced myself. Then, a fire alarm went off in my brain, screeching, “Sharp! Sharp! Sharp!” as red strobe lights blinded me. I cried out when I felt the blade going in and out of my skin.
“You are going to feel pressure, there’s nothing wrong with that,” Dr. Jeff patronized. Did he forget I was not sedated?
The next thing I heard was, “Wow, she is bleeding all over the place.” This is not what you want to hear immediately after someone slices your jugular. It seems that one of my medications contains an anticoagulant. At that point, an emotionally intelligent doctor would have addressed me to manage my emotional experience of the surgery and reassure me. You probably know Dr. Jeff well enough by now to realize that this didn’t happen. In fact, after he closed the artery, he joked, “Now don’t go repeating anything you heard in here.” Naturally, I interpreted this comment to mean, “Hey, Right Shoulder and Side Neck, thanks for being such a good sport. Feel free to publish this experience as a non-example in your article on emotional intelligence in ALS News Today.” So here we are.
Apparently, a lot went right with the surgery. The results were exactly as hoped for. Still, imagine my surprise when I returned to my room to find my mother and husband smiling. They squeezed my hand, kissed my forehead, and told me how brave I was. “The surgeon stopped by and said that the procedure was a success!” my mom said.
It was then that I started to cry. The experience of being helpless to pain and violence dragged me back eleven years to the night I was nearly murdered. My PTSD symptoms flared to life; anxiety and depression crept in, first through nightmares, then into my waking life. I kept thinking about how different my mental state would be if Jeff had just spoken to me. I remembered how my would-be killer barely spoke to me, either. Why would he? I was meat to him, too.
How does the term “medical success” not take patient experience into account? Answer: when the success is being described by a doctor who shows zero emotional intelligence. No one deserves this treatment, especially not those made vulnerable by disease. Emotional intelligence in doctors is an absolute must, just as vital as the medical degree that allows them the privilege of being in the room with you.
Lucky for me, the doctor I see most frequently, a neurologist named Dr. Goslin, is an expert at practicing emotional intelligence. From the moment I stepped into her office, I felt like I was the most important person in the world to her. She wanted to know all about me, way beyond my ALS story. In fact, she knows as much about me as some of my friends do. The day I met her, all she wanted to do was listen. Then, she asked me about my emotional state and medical goals. I told her I felt positive, ready to fight, and I wanted to survive this terminal, currently uncured disease.
Her response? “I think that’s a great goal, and with the way research is going we definitely have reason to hope.” I knew what I had said would be laughable to many people, but she managed to respect my feelings without making me promises she couldn’t deliver. That conversation set the tone for every future interaction we had. We follow a treatment plan that focuses on the goal of survival by staying ahead of the disease and minimizing its strain on my body while I wait for the cure. Dr. Goslin used emotional intelligence to learn about me and achieve her goal of designing a treatment plan for me, not just my disease. Now every time I see her, I feel empowered. She is an important part of keeping my mind healthy.
When I decided to write about how the emotional intelligence of doctors can affect a patient’s mental health, I asked Dr. Goslin if I could interview her. She agreed with enthusiasm.
At the beginning of the interview, she said, “I think that emotional intelligence as you have defined it is one of the most important aspects of being a good clinician. Acknowledgement of the importance of emotions is part of treating the whole person and not just the disease. [However], my medical training did not address this aspect of care at all. There wasn’t any acknowledgement of the importance of emotions (of the patient or of the self) in caring for patients.”
Well, that explains Dr. Jeff, but what about Dr. Goslin? Where did she learn about emotional intelligence and how to practice it?
“I have attended various educational meetings regarding awareness of this topic, particularly based on mindfulness, meditation, and being in the moment. It is definitely something that I cultivate,” Dr. Goslin said.
She went on to explain, “A lot of emotional intelligence comes from experience and a willingness to be open to emotions, both mine and others. When emotions arise that would typically be unpleasant or uncomfortable I tend to allow them to flow over me, and I sit with them, without actually judging them as negative. I then use awareness of the emotions to help determine what the patient finds most important to have addressed and how best to do this.”
Being a doctor who practices emotional intelligence sounds difficult, even draining, but Dr. Goslin can’t imagine treating her patients without interacting with their emotions. “I believe that patients’ emotional response to disease and to their care factors heavily into how effectively they can be treated. Fear and anger are two common emotions that occur in the setting of illness and that can impede medical treatment. Often when a doctor can recognize and address these emotions, road blocks to treatment can be removed.”
“How does practicing emotional intelligence affect you on a personal level? Is it challenging?” I asked.
“I think that emotional intelligence sometimes allows me to have a closer relationship with patients, which can make my sorrow for the patients more extreme. It is also important but sometimes difficult to recognize my own emotions and not let them interfere with patient care. For example, before going into a room to give a patient a diagnosis of ALS, I might be feeling fear and anxiety about how the patient will accept the diagnosis and how well I will be able to respond to the intensity of emotions that are likely. I have to control these emotions so that the patient can be the appropriate center of focus.”
When I asked her what emotional intelligence brings to the table when dealing with a terminal disease like ALS, she answered with the optimism that is perhaps her defining characteristic: “While ALS is terminal, it is not without treatment and hope. I think that use of emotional intelligence results in a closer patient doctor relationship and builds a level of trust and openness. I hope that the positive emotions that I bring to treating diseases (even terminal ones), increases the likelihood that patients will also have positive emotions.”
So, how can you find the emotionally intelligent doctor you need and deserve to keep your mind mighty? Dr. Goslin, of course, has the answer. “In some ways, I think the web based assessments of doctors can reflect their emotional intelligence because I believe that patients have greater satisfaction when treated by a doctor with emotional intelligence. Of course these assessments can be also be done by patients who are unhappy with a doctor for unrelated reasons, like the doctor wouldn’t prescribe narcotics.”
Keeping that caveat in mind, I recommend using the following free sites for finding reviews: healthgrades, RateMDs, Yelp, and Zocdoc. Once you have a list of a few you like, you can call each doctor’s office or sometimes even email the doctor directly to ask if he or she follows what I call “The Goslin Equation:” mindfulness + meditation.
Need help planning what to say during your phone call or in your email? Check out this script:
“I am interested in working with a doctor who practices emotional intelligence. How is emotional intelligence part of the way you treat patients? Can you tell me if you have had any mindfulness or meditation training?”
Now go get the fantastic care you deserve!
Abridged version originally published by ALS News Today on October 2, 2017