The New York Times, 22 April 2008
A young doctor sat down with a terminal lung cancer patient and her husband to discuss the woman’s gloomy prognosis. The patient began to cry. Then the doctor did, too.
The scene was undoubtedly moving. But should physicians display this much emotion at the bedside?
For years, medical schools and residency training programs studiously avoided the topic of emotions. Doctors learned the nuts and bolts of cancer and other serious diseases. Yet when it came time to reveal grim diagnoses, they were largely on their own.
These days, all medical schools have some type of education in topics like the physician-patient relationship and breaking bad news. But knowing how to respond to a personal wave of stress or sadness remains a major challenge. Is crying O.K.? How about hugging a patient who starts to cry?
One physician who cautions against excess emotions is Dr. Hiram S. Cody III, acting chief of the breast cancer service at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Although Dr. Cody emphasizes the need for doctors “to understand, to sympathize, to empathize and to reassure,” he says his job “is not to be emotional and/or cry with my patients.”
There are two reasons for this stance, Dr. Cody tells young physicians on rounds: It is not therapeutic for the patient, and it will cause “emotional burnout” in the doctor.
These beliefs are shared by many other physicians, but some new data suggest that crying in a medical setting is common among young doctors. At a recent meeting of the Society of General Internal Medicine, Dr. Anthony D. Sung of Harvard Medical School and colleagues reported that 69 percent of medical students and 74 percent of interns said they had cried at least once. As might be expected, more than twice as many women cried as men.
In some instances on the wards, the emotions just flow. For example, in the 1988 PBS documentary “Can We Make a Better Doctor?” a Harvard medical student, Jane Liebschutz, sees her patient unexpectedly die during a cardiac bypass operation. She suddenly bursts into tears and wanders away from her colleagues until the chief surgeon, who has witnessed what happened, assures her that her response was natural.
Other physicians may choose to place themselves in emotional situations. Dr. May Hua, an anesthesiology resident at Columbia University Medical Center, recently told me that during her internship, her supervising resident, Dr. Benita Burke, skipped lunch to spend extra time with her cancer patients. They dubbed this time “mental health rounds,” during which they could address issues that were not strictly medical. Many times, Dr. Burke would wind up in tears or giving an embrace.
“I think patients adored Benita,” Dr. Hua said, “both as their doctor and as their friend.”
But even as she admired her colleague, Dr. Hua realized that such public emotion was not for her. “I knew this was something I couldn’t do, because I needed to have a level of detachment to these people.”
I understood exactly what Dr. Hua meant. Whether because of my personality or my being a man, I, too, have never cried in front of a patient.
Dr. Burke says she believes that her crying stems from being “very involved” in her cases, which leads her to “take everything to heart.” In the case of the lung cancer patient, Dr. Burke had been the first physician to inform her that further aggressive treatment was unlikely to help. In other words, the patient was dying.
Dr. Burke said she realized that this level of involvement was uncommon but believed that she could not be any other kind of doctor. “I’ve always been a very emotional person at baseline,” she said.
Dr. Sung’s study concludes with a call for senior doctors to acknowledge and discuss openly the apparent high rates of crying among medical trainees.
Yet while health professionals — not only physicians but also nurses and social workers — may debate among themselves the propriety of emotional displays, what probably matters most is what patients think. Just as different doctors respond differently to sad situations, so do patients and their families. While some might appreciate physical contact or tears, others find such displays to be too “touchy-feely.”
Cancer patients may encounter such situations more than most. One breast cancer survivor, Sharon Rapoport, of Roanoke, Va., said she greatly admired physicians like Dr. Cody, who may appear reserved but communicate their concern through their actions.
But Ms. Rapoport also said she had an extra appreciation for doctors who felt comfortable with outward displays of emotion. “If that means tears,” she said, “bring them on.”