In one experiment, physicians who practice acupuncture (as well as matched non-physician controls) underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while watching videos of needles being inserted into another person’s hands, feet and areas around their mouth as well as videos of the same areas being touched by a cotton bud. Compared to controls, the physicians showed significantly less response in brain regions involved in empathy for pain. In addition, the physicians showed significantly greater activation of areas involved in executive control, self-regulation and thinking about the mental states of others. The physicians appeared to show less empathy and more of a higher-level cognitive response. ...Most people automatically assume that more empathy is a good thing. Sometimes it is, and often it is not.
Whether during a surgery, biopsy, physical exam, or even a simple blood draw, healthcare professionals routinely must inflict pain on others to make them better in the long run. Physicians also need to have daily communication with patients who are physically injured, bleeding or otherwise suffering. Being too focused on the patient’s pain can make the doctor less effective. Suppressing the response to others’ pain may in fact free up information processing resources to more effectively solve clinical problems. This argument explains the finding that physicians get less empathic as they see more patients and progress through their training. ...
The key is knowing when empathy is called for and when it is detrimental. It should not be the goal of physicians, then, to be more empathetic.
Friday, April 29, 2011
Why physicians lack empathy
SciAm magazine explains why physicians lack empathy, and why that is a good thing: