Get Me an Emotionally Intelligent Doctor, STAT!

Posted 12.03.2008

Unemotionally intelligent doctor You can find leadership lessons in some unlikely places, such as yesterday’s Science section of The New York Times.  Laurie Tarkan reports on a recently conducted survey of health care workers in over 100 hospitals.  Sixty seven percent of the respondents believe there is a link between disruptive behavior by physicians and medical mistakes.  Eighteen percent could point to specific mistakes that occurred because of an obnoxious doctor.

What exactly do the responding residents and nurses mean by “obnoxious doctors?”  On one end of the spectrum, it’s being belittled, insulted or yelled at in front of colleagues and patients.   On the other end, it’s ducking flying scalpels thrown across the O.R. by angry surgeons.  Sometimes failures of leadership literally mean the difference between life and death. In one case, a resident at a University of California hospital noticed a problem with the fetal monitoring strip on a woman in labor.  As the Times reports, “He was afraid to contact the attending physician, who was notorious for yelling and ridiculing the residents.”  The baby died.

For most of us, the stakes are not that immediately apparent but this article got me thinking about the unmeasured impact of abusive and arrogant leaders in the workplace.  Over the years, I’ve concluded that leadership skills can be boiled down to two big categories: those that deal with getting results and those that deal with building relationships.  What the Times article points out is the impact of physician leaders who over index on getting results.  Particularly in high stress situations (Been through any of those lately?), it’s easy for high achieving, high potential leaders to bear down on the results so hard that the relationships that lead to sustainable results over time are ignored or abused.

The good news on the health care front is that medical schools are now emphasizing communications and leadership as two of the six core skills taught to new physicians.  As Dr. Michael Kahn wrote in a sidebar article for the Times yesterday, a lot of what’s needed now is plain, old fashioned good manners.  As an example, he offered this simple check list for doctors entering a patient’s room for the first time:

  • Ask permission to enter the room; wait for an answer.
  • Introduce yourself; show your ID badge.
  • Shake hands.
  • Sit down. Smile if appropriate.
  • Explain your role on the health care team.
  • Ask how the patient feels about being in the hospital.

As Dr. Kahn put it, “My doctor may be tired, preoccupied or not that interested in me as a person; but I should still expect him or her to treat me with the kind of attentiveness and respect I recently received from a ‘genius’ at the local Apple store.”

OK, everyone, it’s gut check time.  How have your manners and emotionally intelligence been showing up lately in these stressful times?  What would your personal version of the simple etiquette list that Dr. Kahn offers look like?  Where and with whom do you need to apply it?  How about the leaders who work on your team?  What kind of coaching on this front might you need to provide to them?

Let’s start a conversation that all of our readers can benefit from.  Leave a comment that shares your thinking on any or all of the questions above.