Saturday, December 29, 2012

New Research Suggests Empathy and Analytic Thinking are Mutually Exclusive

Recent research utilizing functional MRI suggests that the circuits of the brain that are activated during analytic tasks are actually inhibited when people are engaged in social tasks,  and vice versa.

So, for example, when people are engaged in tasks that stimulate the centers of the brain associated with analytic problem solving, pathways activated during tasks that evoke empathic understanding are inhibited. The results, published online in the neuroimaging journal, NeuroImage, in October, 2012, were  summarized in an artilce that appeared on Medical News Today  -

These interesting findings shed light on the neural processes invovled in analytic and social tasks and suggest that empathic thinking and analytic thinking may be mutually exclusive. No wonder it is hard for us to consider the experience and feelings of others when we are deeply engaged in analytic problem solving. This also may explain why many health care providers miss opportunities to respond to patients' emotions when they are "conducting a history" and engaging in diagnostic reasoning and treatment planning.

From a healthcare professional training perspective, these research findings suggest that clinicians need to learn how to compensate for the inhibition of the social circuitry that occurs when they enage in analytic tasks. Helping clinicians to actively "tune in" to patients' emotional state may help "turn down" their analytic thinking and allow them to respond more effectively to patients' psychosocial needs.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Empathy Works for Business Too!

See the link below for an article on the value of empathy in the workplace that appeared in the online magazine Smart Business.

The importance of empathy in the workplace | Smart Business

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Great American Smokeout - An Empathic Opportunity

Though any time is a good time to quit smoking,  November 15, 2012 is the 37th annual Great American Smokeout, or GASO, a day when hundreds of thousands of smokers will try to stay cigarette free.

Tobacco use remains the single largest preventable cause of death and disease in the United States, with approximately 443,000 U.S. adults dying from smoking-related illnesses each year!
The good news is that stopping smoking will provide some immediate health benefits. For example, your risk for having a stroke, heart attack or other cardiovascular event are reduced dramatically as soon as you quit smoking. Moreover, the risks of developing a smoking-associated cancer or other tobacco use-related condition also diminish over time.
Even if you don't smoke, someone you love may be a smoker and might benefit from quitting smoking during the GASO, or as a New Year's resolution, or any time!
So, what does this have to do with empathy and why am I writing about the Great American Smokeout here? 
Well, I can't help myself. As a physician, I have seen the ravaging effects that smoking has had on my patients and those who love them. As an educator, I have spent a good part of my career trying to help caring clinicians feel more prepared and confident about assisting their patients who smoke. And as a researcher,  I know that even a small dose of clinician empathy and a little advice and support improves smoking cessation outcomes.
So, if you are a smoker, take this opportunity to think about quitting. If you love a smoker, tell them you care about them and want to support them in their efforts to stay healthy. If you are a clinician, ask your patients who smoke if you can help them address their smoking.
The good news is that many forms of effective smoking cessation treatment, including medication, counseling and support, are now readily available:
  • Medications reduce symptoms of nicotine withdrawal and improve rates of quitting. Some nicotine replacement therapies (e.g., patch, gum, lozenge) are available over-the-counter while others (i.e., nicotine inhaler and spray; bupropion; varenicline) are available by prescription;
  • Behavioral counseling, alone or when provided with medication, improves quit rates. Counseling is provided in individual and group formats and also via free state-supported telephone quit lines; and
  • Online quit programs and mobile aps also show great promise.
For quitting resources and more on the Great American Smokeout, go to the American Cancer Society page at:

For a wonderful Youtube video by Dr. Mike Evans on how to quit smoking see:

And for addition quitting resources see the National Cancer Institute site at:

Monday, October 15, 2012

Health Coaching: A Road to Empowerment

See my latest The Empowered Patient column in the October 15th issue of MPNforum. MPNforum October 15, 2012 - The Empowered Patient.

In the column, I share my personal experience with health coaching as well as my reflections about the qualities to look for in a coach. In sum, "Great coaches empower us by helping us to build the self-monitoring, self-assessment and problem-solving skills that we need to achieve long term success."

Friday, September 14, 2012

More on Empathy and Effective Leadership

See my latest column on the relationship between empathy and effective leadership in the October, 2012 issue of MPNforum.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

More on the Empathy Gap in the Race for the White House

This article in Salon covering Michele Obama's speech at the Democratic National Convention provides another take on the emapthy gap between the major US political Parties:

Republicans’ empathy gap

Friday, August 31, 2012

The Empathy Gap - Obama vs. Romney

Empathy, or the lack of it, is an important and perhaps crucial issue in the US Presidential campaign. Results of a CBS News poll released earlier this week shows that half of registered voters think that Mitt Romney does not understand their problems, reflecting an empathy gap with President Obama. See: CBS News Empathy Gap Poll

In an interview that appeared in the online magazine, Slate, noted British author Marin Amis predicts an Obama victory because he sees a “disastrous lack of empathy” in Mitt Romney. See: Slate interview with Martin Amis

Friday, June 29, 2012

The Joy of Throwing - New Post on MPNforum

See my latest column in the Summer Supplement to MPNforum. It's entitled the Joy of Throwing and chronicles my recent efforts to qualify for the National Senior Games in 2013. Go to: MPNforum

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Graphic on Mind the Gap Emphasizes Impact of Clinician-Patient Communication

A new posting on the blog, Mind the Gap, by Stephen Wilkins, graphically shows the value of good clinician-patient communication. See: Mind the Gap Graphic.

I really like the quote he included from George Bernard Shaw, "The problem with communication is the illusion that it has occurred".

Shaw's quote reflects a key finding from research on clinician-patient communication: clinicians who have lover levels of skill are least likely to be aware of their skill deficit. For example, a review on the effectiveness of self-assessment of learner needs by I. Colthart and colleages (Medical Teacher, 30(2):124-45, 2008) found evidence that that the least competent are also the least able to self-assess accurately. This is why we can't count on clinician self-report and need to assess the competency of clinicians using methods that provide direct evidence of clinician communication skills, such as audio or videos of actual encounters,  evaluations of simulated encounters, assessment of patient experience. (See: Levinson et al.,  Health Aff (Millwood) 29(7): 1310-8.)

The good news is that the accuracy of self-assessment can be enhanced by feedback, particularly video and verbal feedback.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Too much talking | QReview

Follow this link Too much talking | QReview to a blog post about the importance of  eliciting understanding, concerns and beliefs and listening, rather than just telling.

The author, Dr. Susan Shaw, is Chair, Health Quality Council and Department Head, Adult Critical Care, for the Saskatoon Health Region in Canada.

The post originally appeared on Q Review, a blog published by theThe Health Quality Council (HQC). HQC is an independent agency that measures and reports on quality of care in Saskatchewan, promotes improvement, and engages its partners in building a better health system.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

A Program to Promote Empathy Among Residents: Documenting Medicine

See this link for a story about an innovative program for promoting empathy among medical residents at Duke.

Documenting Medicine

Friday, May 18, 2012

The Empowered Patient: Hearing is Empowering

My column in the June, 2012 issue of MPNforum, The Empowered Patient: Hearing is Empowering, ( ) is about my long journey to improved hearing. Why did it take me so long to order hearing aids? I hope my story will lower the barriers to obtaining hearing aids among the millions who suffer from age related hearing loss.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Several Recent Articles Stress the Value of Empathy in Medical Care.

The importance of empathy in medical care is the focus of several articles recently published in the medical literature. See below for a brief comment on each and a link or reference to the article.

In an article that appeared in the March, 2012 issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science, Hacque and Waytz include empathy reduction in clinicians as one of the "causes of dehumanization" in medicine. They suggest that clinicians have difficulty being empathic when actively engaged in demanding cognitive processes, such as diagnostic reasoning and problem solving. Empathy reduction can be countered, however, by strategies which promote clinician awareness of the human and emotional aspects of patient care, such as learning about the whole patient (e.g., interests, roles, values, preferences) and recognizing the dehumanizing aspects of medical settings, technology and the procedural elements of care. The article citation is: Hacque, OS, Waytz A. Dehumanization in Medicine: Causes, Solutions, and Functions. Perspectives on Psychological Science vol. 7 no. 2 176-186. doi: 10.1177/1745691611429706                                 

In the May, 2012 issue of the Journal of General Internal Medicine, Helen Reiss and colleagues reported that training in empathy improves physician use of empathic skills. Reiss reports that providing three 60-minute empathy training modules to residents and fellows (physicians undergoing specialty training post medical school) produced significantly greater changes in a patient-rated measure of empathy than residents undergoing standard training. Trained physicians also showed greater changes in their ability to decode facial expressions of emotion. An abstract of the article can be found at:

And, the most inspiring article of the recent articles was written by Bernie Lown, MD's on his personal blog. See: . Bernie is a renowned cardiologist, educator and researcher who has been a proponent of patient-centered care for 60 + years! Dr. Lown is a leading voice in medical ethics and social responsibility and was a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for his leadership of the Physicians for Social Responsibility during this organization's campaign to educate the public about the medical consequences of a nuclear catastrophe. He has also been an outspoken critic of overtreatment and
unnecessary use of medical technology, especially in advancing cardiovascular health,  and has emphasized the value of addressing health behaviors and promoting patient engagement and empowerment in his publications. The current article is a transcript of his address to the April, 2012 Avoiding Avoidable Care Conference held in Cambridge, MA. (See for more on the conference). Here is my favorite section:

Sixty years of doctoring has taught me that taking a history, namely listening, is the quintessential part of doctoring. Proper listening is a skill, an art and a core element of medical professionalism. History taking is far more than providing key elements for a diagnosis. It is the basis for nurturing trust. I am persuaded that nothing of science taught to medical students is as difficult to master as is the fine art of listening.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Strategy #6 for Empowerment - Connect with Others

See the 1 year anniversary issue of MPNforum for my latest The Empowered Patient column:

MPNforum is an online magazine that features news, interviews and stories on topics of interest to people with Myeloproliferative Neoplasms. My contribution to the May, 2012 issue focuses on the benefits of connecting with others through online magazines, support pages and listserves. Experiencing and expressing empathy are among the most valuable aspects of contributing to and participating in these online resources and sites.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Top 10 Ways to Be More Empowered: New Post in MPNForum, April, 2012

My latest column in the April, 2012 issue of MPN Forum lists my top 10 strategies for empowerment. As I approach 60, I plan to employ these strategies to help me to stay well and manage my health conditions. I hope you will find them useful as well.

See Top 10 Ways to Be More Empowered

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Lady Gaga Launches Foundation to Promote Tolerance, Acceptance and Empathy Among Youth

When you listen to Lady Gaga's pulsing music, see her striking photos, or watch her theatrical performances on video or TV, my guess is that empowerment and empathy are not the first things that come to mind. However, after learning about the launch of Lady Gaga's new Born This Way Foundation (BTWF), I am going to have a hard time not thinking about Lady Gaga's empathy whenever I hear Born This Way, the Foundation's anthem.

At a news conference held at Harvard University, Lady Gaga and her mother, Cynthia Germanotta, indicated that they started the Born This Way Foundation to promote youth empowerment and speak out against bullying. As noted on the BTWF website, the Foundation's mission is "to foster a more accepting society, where differences are embraced and individuality is celebrated." To achieve its mission, the Foundation is "dedicated to creating a safe community that helps connect young people with the skills and opportunities they need to build a braver, kinder world."

In an interview that appeared in Nicholas Kristof's New York Times column, Lady Gaga describes being taunted, bullied and traumatized by fellow students during her high school years.  And, in an interview on the pop culture site, PopCrush, Lady Gaga states that she has learned to respond to taunts with empathy...“I always have a moment of empathy.... I think they must be going through something today that is coming from a place of mental turmoil or a psychological challenge".

It would be wonderful if Lady Gaga can help stem the increase in youth bullying by promoting empowerment, empathy, tolerance and acceptance.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Participatory Health Care: Maastricht University show what it can look like.

I followed a link from a comment to the most recent posting by Stephen Wilkens in his Mind the Gap blog ( Mind the Gap - Patient Enagement - Feb 2012 ) that demonstrated what articipatory health care can look like. It's also a model of an effective brief presentation on the value of a more patient-centered approach in health care.

Thanks to TED and Maastricht University, a world leader in patient-centered care and health professional education for producing this video. See also the TEDxMaastricht site ( TEDxMaastricht 2011 Inspiration Videos ) for several other excellent videos from their 2011 event on participatory health care. If you search around on their site, you will also find information on their planned April 2012 event.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Motivating Yourself: A New Empowered Patient Column in the March MPN Forum

My latest post in The Empowered Patient column in the March, 2012 issue of MPN Forum features a strategy to help you break through the ambivalence that often keeps people for making important life changes.

So, if you are considering change, but have been unable to take action, it may be useful to ask yourself a series of questions that spur you to reflect upon about the value, importance and meaning of making the change. See below for some questions to help you to motivate yourself to take action. Reflect on  your answers and consider writing down your responses to the 3 questions that have the most meaning to you.

See the MPN Forum column ( ) for more guidance about how to use these quesions to help move yourself towards action.

Questions for Motivating Yourself 
  • What do I want to change?
  • What reasons do I have for changing? (focus on your reasons, rather than somebody else's reasons)
  • What is the most important reason for changing?
  • What makes it so important?
  • If I were able to change, what benefits would I experience?
  • What is the most important benefit?
  • Who else might benefit from my change?
  • How would people who care about me feel about my change? (picture the scene)
  • How would I feel about myself if I was able to change? (try to imagine actually experiencing the feeling)
  • What small steps can I take to get started on the road to change? (consider the really really small steps that you know you to successfully take)
  • Who can help me get started?
  • How can I bring my talents and skills and experience to the change process?

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

New Post in MPN Forum - The Empowered Patient: New Years Resolutions

See the February issue of MPN Forum for the lastest The Empowered Patient column, New Year's Resolutions: A Road to Empowerment. MPN Forum: The Empowered Patient (Feb, 2012)

Though it may be difficult to keep New Year's resolutions several strategies may help you you stay on track. These include staying positive, setting achievable goals, learning from slips and rewarding small successes.