Doctors require an array of skills to provide high quality care to the people they serve. A portion of these can be described as “technical” skills, with examples such as history taking, conducting physical examinations, prescribing, diagnostics, performing procedures, operating etc.
However, there are also a range of “non-technical” skills, the significance of which has been increasingly recognised. In fact, many of these are evaluated as early as the medical school application, particularly here in the United Kingdom.
Today, I wanted to outline the concept of emotional intelligence (EI), discuss why it is relevant to the work of doctors, and provide a handful of tips to prospective medicine applicants.
Firstly, we should not take this term too literally. There is a fierce debate within the field of psychology over what the definition of intelligence is, and secondary debates on whether EI is a true form of intelligence.
For practical purposes we will ignore that problem and define EI as a combination of skills which include:
Emotional Perception – the ability to accurately identify different emotions, both in yourself and in others.
E.g. differentiating between frustration and anger
Emotional Understanding – the ability to understand the impact or influence of emotional state on the behaviour or decisions of yourself and others.
E.g. appreciating when emotions lead to a particular outcome versus an emotion arising because of a particular outcome
Emotion Management – the ability to occupy and navigate between emotional states
E.g. having the self-awareness to notice an emotional state and prevent it from affecting your behaviour
Emotion Utilisation – the ability to utilise emotional states in yourself to your advantage and the ability to induce specific emotional states in others for their advantage
So why might EI be useful for Doctors?
For personal work ethic and stress release
No matter what your background or education level is, we are all susceptible to emotions at work, the triggers of which could vary between a rude patient, a team conflict or even a personal life problem which is yet to be resolved.
Having EI would include the self-awareness to notice when you have entered an emotional state and the ability to prevent it from affecting your clinical decision making and bedside manner.
This is critical in ensuring that you are treating each patient fairly and providing the highest quality care which is attainable with the resources available to you, and these are two of the six core NHS values.
Moreover, on a personal level, recognising when your competence is being affected by your mental state allows you to address them promptly.
For example, you can only pursue your stress release hobby of choice, say playing tennis, if you are able to first recognise when you are stressed. Hence, one could argue that EI may be helpful in preventing burnout within a career.
For teamwork and leadership
Even though medicine is a markedly team-oriented endeavour, we often distribute the tasks of the day between a team and subsequently attend to our portion of the workload.
Generally, this is the most efficient way to tackle the job but since I have started work, there have been a handful of occasions where I have had too much on my plate.
In some of those scenarios, I asked for help myself, but in others my team came to my rescue without me calling for it. They demonstrated EI in those scenarios as they were able to recognise that I was in an emotional state of stress and offered their assistance early.
I have always been grateful when this is the case because as a training doctor, putting yourself outside your comfort zone is a regularity and getting the right support at the right time is invaluable. Hopefully, I will be able to demonstrate a similar degree of EI to my own juniors in the future stages of my career.
On the leadership front, EI manifests as the ability to adjust your leadership style to suit your team.
For example, some workers will respond to a “commanding” leadership style based on direct communication, clear expectations, and strict demands.
Others may respond better to an “affiliative” style which emphasises emotional bonds between team members, positive encouragement, and constructive criticism.
Adjusting leadership style can also be beneficial when the challenges faced by a team change and healthcare teams have experienced this first-hand with the COVID-19 pandemic.
In recent weeks, I’ve observed how senior doctors and department leads have changed their tune and leadership style to bring together their workforce and extract the best outcome possible in an extraordinarily difficult circumstance.
For patient satisfaction and understanding
This is where EI becomes critical. Recognising emotions in your patients and attempting to understand how they are influencing behaviours is the basis of empathy.
Additionally, EI is essential for effective communication. Ensuring patients understand the information you are conveying to them is a necessity for valid informed consent.
The ability to recognise by facial expression when a patient is confused or fearful allows a doctor to pause the consultation and explore any questions or concerns before continuing. There is a saying in medicine that patients remember how you made them feel much better than what you did.
So, what can prospective medicine applicants take away from this?
During the medical school interview, both panel and MMI, you will be evaluated in several ways which are directly influenced by EI.
Key examples would include questions on ethics and professionalism, role play scenarios, and questions on stress, coping mechanisms, and weaknesses.
Of course, it is possible to practice answers that address all of the above but taking the time to develop your EI would make tackling these interview tasks more comfortable and better prepare you for life in medical school and beyond.
My top tips for developing EI would include:
Mindfulness – whilst this practice deserves an entire article on its own, specifically paying attention to your emotional state can be interesting. Picking apart similar feelings such as frustration and anger can be particularly difficult and you might find yourself re-evaluating your understanding of individual emotions.
Communicate – talking about emotions and their impact on behaviours with your friends and family can be awkward, but since starting as a doctor, I’ve found that this act of “debriefing” is incredibly useful and I find myself regularly doing this with friends after work.
Reading – there are several blog posts and books which broach the topic of EI, a few of my favourites include: