Doctors and Empathy

Physicians and Patients Both Want Change

Doctors and Empathy

In a brilliant and visceral essay published in this month’s Atlantic, Meghan O’Rourke takes us through the current state of doctors, empathy and the American health care system that has not only complicated how patients receive care but also how doctors become fulfilled in their professions.  Although many doctors enter the profession to become healers, teachers and care givers, too many have recently discovered the bureaucratic system driven by insurance companies and higher level decision makers without healthcare degrees and subsequent moral obligations to patients have created a system that isn’t working for patients or for doctors.

Several books recently published by disenfranchised doctors have brought the issue to the forefront of the discussion on healthcare in America and O’Rourke’s essay is one of the best I’ve seen on the subject of what it might take to change the system so that doctors and patients can both work together to create better outcomes and a healthier nation, not just a sterile environment where patients lose their identity and doctors lose their souls.  Research cited in the article shows many doctors lose their empathy somewhere before the third year of medical school.  There still exists a school of thought that doctors must be cold and callous in order to avoid mistakes and not treat patients based on emotional decisions.

In the article, the author cites more than ample evidence that patients want doctors who show empathy, passion and enthusiasm in their care and that doctors are experiencing career burnout at higher rates than ever before.  What opportunities exist to help patients receive better care and physicians to enjoy the rewards they anticipated when they joined the profession in the first place?  O’Rourke suggests the acknowledgement that we all want change; patients and doctors, not just patients, is the first step towards realizing a healthcare model where “a conversation is as important as a prescription” and where “healing matters as much as state of the art surgery.”  This realization is at the center of any significant progress in restoring the doctor-patient relationship in today’s broken healthcare system.  I highly encourage any healthcare provider, patient, politician, hospital CEO and insurance administrator to read O’Rourke’s article and add the books she reviews to your list of references in a common effort to enhance the healthcare of every American.

Worked at Burleson Orthodontics. Attended University of Missouri–Kansas City. Lives in Kansas City, Missouri.