Empathy and the Mind-Body Problem (2)

Empathic skill is unusual in the world of medical clinicians trained in physiologic diagnosis.  Part of the reason for this is that admission to school depends heavily on achievement in chemistry and biology where empathy is of little importance.  Professional training continues the emphasis on science that can readily be quantified.   Also consistent with the objectivity of numerically oriented science is the tradition of maintaining a demeanor of detached concern toward patients.  As my friend Jodi Halpern, MD has written: “The ideal of detached concern is justified by the argument that only an unemotional physician is free to discern and meet patients’ emotional needs without imposing his own.” (1, p 25)

But Dr Halpern’s brilliant book shows that striving for detachment can leave a clinician unaware of emotions that influence their behavior.  This can lead to many types of clinical error.  For example, a “physician whose father was alcoholic might minimize her contact with alcoholic patients because of her resentment” or a “physician who just lost a patient to cancer may judge that a new patient with weight loss and lethargy is likely to have a cancer, despite the patient having given a history more suggestive of depression.” (1, p 27)

Dr Halpern’s book documents that empathic skill not only helps prevent these errors but also, in many cases, is essential to correct diagnosis.  This insight is particularly important with respect to stress illness patients.  More about that in the next post.

1. Halpern J.  From Detached Concern to Empathy. (2001)  Oxford University Press.

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