Medical professionals walk a fine emotional line. Doctors who are sensitive and empathetic to their clients’ situations tend to have high levels of rapport and communication with them. This improves the chances of treatment adherence and increases the likelihood of a positive doctor-client relationship. According to a recent study led by Ezedquiel Gleichgerrcht of the Institute of Cognitive Neurology in Buenos Aires, Argentina, doctors who demonstrate high levels of compassion and empathy may be at risk for compassion fatigue. Because doctors are exposed to a wide variety of highly emotional situations, including terminal illness, significant impairment, and death, becoming intricately emotionally involved with a client’s emotional state could negatively affect the mental well-being of the doctor. Ultimately, this type of compassion empathy could lead to burnout, also known as compassion fatigue.
Gleichgerrcht assessed how different forms of empathy affected overall well-being in physicians by looking at empathic concern, emotional awareness, personal distress, altruistic behavior, and emotional burnout in a sample of 7, 584 doctors. He found that the doctors who practiced empathic concern and kept their altruism in perspective were more likely to report compassion satisfaction as a result. In contrast, those who reported secondary posttraumatic stress and burnout as a result of empathy also reported high levels of compassion fatigue. When Gleichgerrcht looked at other risk factors, he found that women were more likely than men to report high levels of alexithymia and distress. Being unable to identify and express their emotions left these participants more vulnerable to feelings of devaluation and negative affect.
The results of this study show that possessing and practicing empathy is a challenging feat for many physicians. Those who have difficulty controlling their emotions and stress may inadvertently be negatively impacting their clients and themselves. But doctors who are able to regulate their emotions and keep their empathy in perspective appear to be able to provide immeasurable benefits to their clients and in the process protect themselves from potential burnout. Gleichgerrcht added, “These issues require further investigation, including the identification of biomarkers, as the medical profession is struggling to achieve an appropriate balance between clinical distance and empathic concern.”
Gleichgerrcht, E., Decety, J. (2013). Empathy in clinical practice: How individual dispositions, gender, and experience moderate empathic concern, burnout, and emotional distress in physicians. PLoS ONE 8(4): e61526. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0061526
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