Intended for healthcare professionals

Rapid response to:

Observations Ethics Man

How to be a cool headed clinician

BMJ 2012; 344 doi: (Published 08 June 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;344:e3980

Rapid Response:

Re: How to be a cool headed clinician

Daniel Sokol in his article how to be a cool headed clinician sets a dangerous precedent not only by misrepresenting what empathy actually means but creating an idea that the quality of imperturbability is incompatible with genuine clinical empathy.

Empathy is a complex, multidimensional concept that has moral, cognitive, emotive and behavioural components. It involves the ability to understand the patient’s situation from their perspective and communicate that understanding to them in a helpful (therapeutic) way (Ref 1). It is a powerful clinical skill that can be taught with specific communication skills training. It is not the ability to cry with someone but the ability to convey to another individual that you are attuned to their emotions. It does not require the doctor to have those feelings too. Daniel Sokol is describing sympathy and not empathy.

Training all doctors to be empathic has a very positive impact on the patient experience as it conveys genuine regard rather than the often stereotyped image of the cold, distant professional.

In a highly charged situation imperturbability is indeed a very effective quality but is more likely to be gifted to an empathic individual who is able to put themselves in someone else’s shoes to see it from another’s point of view.

1. Mercer SW et al
. Empathy and quality of care. Br J Gen Pract 2002;52Suppl:S9–12

Competing interests: I am National Clinical Lead of Connected© - an advanced communication skills training programme

21 June 2012
Pauline C Leonard
Consultant Medical Oncologist
Whittington Health
Magdala Ave N19 5NF