Intended for healthcare professionals

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
  1. Daniel K Sokol, honorary senior lecturer in medical ethics, Imperial College London, and barrister, Inner Temple, London, UK
  1. daniel.sokol{at}

Imperturbability is an essential characteristic for doctors, reflects Daniel Sokol, but how compatible is it with empathy?

At law school, as at medical school, however hard you study nothing quite prepares you for the real thing. In court, when your opponent rises to invoke an unfamiliar and potentially killer point, the mind tends to panic: “Where did this come from? Did I miss something in my preparation? What am I going to say?” Searching frantically for a response, you watch in despair as your opponent sits down. The stern looking judge nods expectantly in your direction: it is your turn to rise and speak. The world is now a lonely place, with nowhere to hide. Although stressful, this experience is central to professional development.

Experience alone, however, is of little value. The psychologist Anders Ericsson, an expert on experts, declared in a recent book that he had been “unable to find any evidence showing that experience has any benefits unless people pay attention to feedback and actively adjust.”1 For …

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