Can young physicians be taught empathy, or is empathetic capacity innate.

June 26, 2018  |  General

(I posted a version of this little essay some years ago at the request of Maggie Mahar, but I think it’s an important issue that’s worth dusting off and putting out there again.)

We want competent physicians, but we also want compassionate ones. How do we get them? Is it nature or is it nurture? Is it more important to search out more compassionate students, or should we instill compassion somehow in the ones we start along the training pipeline? I think the answer lies in nurturing what nature has already put there.

My background is in pediatric critical care, which I have practiced for thirty-five years. Throughout most of my career I have taught medical students, residents, and fellows. So I have seen young physicians as they made their way as best they could through the long training process. I also served on a medical school admissions committee for some years and interviewed many prospective students, so I have had the opportunity to see and speak with them before the medical education system even got hold of them. I think the main principle to keep before us is not so much to figure out a way to teach compassion, but rather to devise ways such that the training process does not reduce, or even extinguish, the innate compassion all humans have toward one another. Unfortunately, our current way of doing things does not do a very good job at that task. But I do not think our present state of affairs is anyone’s fault. We are hobbled by our success. Some historical background is helpful, I think, to explain what I mean.

When my grandfather graduated from medical school in 1901 he had only a few tools to help the sick. He could do useful things to help injuries mend. He had the newly discovered techniques of aseptic surgery, as well as ether to allow him to do it painlessly. Other than that, though, he did not have much – narcotics to relieve pain, powdered digitalis leaf to help a failing heart, and a few other things. Mostly, though, he had bagful of useless nostrums. Some of them were even harmful. Because he had little to offer, compassion figured prominently in whatever therapy he did. It had to.

When my father graduated from the same medical school in 1944, things were better. Surgery had advanced further from his father’s day, although only brave surgeons entered the chest cavity. There was sulfa, and penicillin soon became available, working miracles with previously deadly infections. Streptomycin and later drugs made the scourge of tuberculosis treatable. He soon had some drugs to treat high blood pressure, which by then had killed his father, plus a rapidly enlarging stock of other useful drugs to put in the black bag he took on house calls. But there were still many things for which he could do nothing. For a heart attack he gave some morphine to take away the pain and then waited to see what happened. If a cancer could not be removed surgically, he had nothing to offer. Although my father’s black bag held more than his father’s had contained, compassion was still a crucial part of my father’s armamentarium. As for his father, it had to be.

I graduated from medical school in 1978. If scientific medicine was just spreading its wings during my father’s training, I experienced it in full flight. By then our medical-industrial complex had rolled out nearly all of the varieties of therapies we have still, although of course we have polished and improved them. What has happened, I think, is not that we have become less compassionate on purpose, but that we came to act as if we no longer needed the compassion of my father or my grandfather’s era, now that we had so many really useful and exciting therapies to offer.

I also think one other historical change is key to understanding how our young doctors react to the experience of seeing death and dying. In my grandfather’s era, it was an unusual person, even an unusual child, who had not personally seen someone die. Children and young adults saw how those around them behaved and reacted to death. If they became doctors, both they and their patients had shared this common experience, so both knew how to act. I saw death for the first time when I was sixteen on my very first day working as an orderly in our local hospital. I was giving a bath to an old man; he looked at me oddly, and then he was dead. None of my friends or schoolmates had ever seen such a thing. I still recall it vividly. I also remember well how helpful the nurses, all women in their fifties or sixties, were to me afterwards. I watched them wash the body, a once sacramental task now largely done by nurses in hospitals instead of families in their homes. They were respectful, but matter-of-fact as they went about it. After all, it was a natural thing.

I think compassion for others is innate in all of us, although it is stronger in some than in others. All of us possess an inner light. Perhaps that opinion makes my theology show, but I think it is fair to say our medical school selection process already skews toward selecting students more compassionate than the average person. We need to encourage that quality, certainly, but that is not the key issue in my mind; mainly we need to prevent medical training from driving it into the background, belittling it, or even snuffing it out. So I do not think we need so much to ponder how to teach compassion as we need to find ways of letting students’ natural humanity shine through. For medical educators, that would seem to me to be good news. Framed that way, it ought to be doable – but how?

There are many things in medicine that can be taught with the old “see one, do one, teach one” model that those of us older than fifty remember. We also remember never seeing a faculty attending physician in the hospital at night, because, after sundown, the place belonged to the residents. Even during the day, attending physicians were more likely to be found in their offices or their research laboratories than out and about on the wards. I learned how to intubate a baby and place an umbilical artery catheter from my senior resident, who had learned the year before from her senior resident. But my senior resident was not much help when a premature baby died; she was as much at sea as I was. All she had learned about that from her senior resident was to cultivate a sort of hard-boiled persona. We aspired to it partly because it gave us a mental escape hatch in those situations. But mainly it was because nobody showed us any other way.

How to show that other way? In my mind, there is no substitute for senior, seasoned physicians demonstrating, in the moment, how to let out our own innate empathy and compassion. Good, experienced physicians are comfortable admitting their medical ignorance and failures to families; nothing terrifies residents more than that. When they see it in action, students and residents respond with a version of: “That’s why I became a doctor.” Structurally, medical education has already made great strides in the right direction. We now have rules for resident supervision that involve much more oversight, even at night, than I ever had. This was done mostly for patient safety, I think, with education as a secondary and really unintended consequence.

So the opportunities are there – we just need to implement them better. For example, after an unsuccessful resuscitation and a death, the folks with the grey hair should spend as much time discussing with students and residents the psychic dimensions of the death as they do the sequence of medical decisions. Most of my colleagues already do that to varying degrees, but it should be an expectation.

We should never again send a resident, alone and emotionally at sea, to comfort a grieving family without backup. We do not do that for complicated invasive procedures; we should not do it for this other, equally important task either. Certainly some organized instruction – seminars, discussion groups, lectures and the like – can be part of the process. But the training curriculum is already stuffed with subjects. Taking residents by the hand and leading them through these experiences does not require another fat syllabus. It only takes a little time. If we want to foster compassion in our students we should ourselves show them compassion for the situations we put them in. We should let their innate, inner compassion and empathy find an outlet and breathe free.


Leave a Reply