Part 3 of our ongoing series

By: Russ Brown

What inspired you to get into medicine? Was it a desire to be of service to others? That feeling of knowing that you are part of something bigger than yourself? Was it an innate desire to be intellectually challenged? For most of us I would hypothesize it is a combination of all of these. At the core of this is most likely a desire to help others in what is often a patient’s worst day. Unfortunately, over time, that desire to help that once burned red-hot can resemble a barely burning ember. We all read of stories about burnout and moral injury. Healthcare provider suicides have reached an all-time high with physician suicides at around 400 per year. Residency programs have instituted wellness programs to combat this growing problem. Many of those in the fields of nursing and EMS leave the occupation completely or transition into less stressful, non-clinical positions. Not to mention the growing dependence of alcohol and prescription drug abuse that is rampant, but often not discussed amongst healthcare providers. Understanding the third pillar of emotional intelligence can help us understand this epidemic of burnout and hopefully reinvigorate our desire for medicine.

Social awareness is the third component of emotional intelligence and is simply defined as “the ability to understand and respond to the needs of others.” Understanding the needs of others can have an immense impact on on our patients and co-workers. Have you ever had a meal at a restaurant were the waiter was attuned to your every need? Your drink glass was always full, the waiter made helpful menu recommendations, and every request you made was met with a polite and professional demeanor. That waiter was masterfully displaying this concept of social awareness in understanding exactly what you needed. According to Daniel Goleman, being socially aware is further broken down into the following three components.

  • Empathy: This is the ability to understand another person’s emotions and concerns.
  • Service: This is the ability to meet and understand the needs of other people
  • Organizational awareness: This is the ability to understand the politics within a particular organization and how these may affect the people working in them.

While the decisions we often make are more life or death than the restaurant industry, social awareness to our patients translates into better patient care. Anticipating that a patient is cold and getting them a warm blanket, taking the extra time to explain discharge instructions or a particular procedure, or knowing that family is in the waiting room and bringing them to the bedside can put your patients at ease.

It has been reported in some of the literature that empathy is lower now than ever before. Many theories exist as to why this is occurring. A breakdown of direct communication and reliance on social networking and digital forms of communication have been cited as contributing factors. The inability to spend significant amounts of time with patients as in the days of house calls is also cited as a factor. Making a conscious effort to show empathy will not only pay huge dividends towards patient care but will also make an impact on teaching your leaner the value of empathy as well. Misdirected and inappropriate comments about a patient can leave a negative impression upon those we teach and set the stage for future providers who exhibit the same behavior. Trying to display empathy can also go a long way towards squelching burnout and stress-related behaviors. When we are able to truly understand our patient’s emotions it helps to reinvigorate our passion for why we do this job in the first place. I love the words of emergency physician Greg Henry, “Patients come to us for care not judgement. Judgement is the province of the Lord.”

Service is the next component of social awareness. What does it mean to be “of service” to someone? The word service come from Old French service meaning “an act of homage, servitude.” Homage is defined as, “a special honor or respect shown publicly.” I think the majority of us would hardly go so far as to say we treat our patients and colleagues with “special honor.” The routine headache patient or back pain patient we see would not be regarded as an honor. This is where you will really shine in social awareness if you become more cognizant of this trait. Think of it like this. We should all feel honored that we are in this profession. We get to care for patients at their worst times. By changing our perception on how we view these patients can go a long way towards changing our mindset and lead to a more fulfilling career. In regard to medical education we should also feel honored to teach new trainees. No matter if you’re a program director, clinical preceptor, or “just” doing bedside teaching to a student, “paying homage” will go a long way towards being the kind of teacher that is sought after and respected. And hopefully, when they are in a position to teach the same mindset of service will be practiced.

The last trait of social awareness is organizational awareness. Understanding where you fit in your current organization and the role you play will be a key factor in fostering great communication with others. A key factor in raising one’s organizational awareness is simply listening more. Sounds simple right? It’s not. Think about all the distractions that plaque you during a typical shift. Now couple that with the responsibility of preceptorship or mentoring and you can quickly see how your attention is pulled in different directions. I like to make it a priority to institute a cognitive stop point when communicating information to someone. Put down the phone, get off your computer, and give your co-worker, patient, or student your undivided attention. Really try to pay attention to what they are saying. Take the time to digest this information and then ask one or two follow up questions to solidify what the said. This will go a long way towards active communication and increasing your organizational awareness. Another example of where organizational awareness comes into play when teaching is the student/teacher relationship. Setting clear expectations and goals early in the rotation or shift will help to prevent any confusion or miscommunication later. Take the time to write it down and go over your specific action plan with a trainee before shift. Elicit their goals as well. Doing this will increase their organizational awareness too.

Remember that increasing your social awareness takes time and effort. On the surface it many appear easy but putting these traits into real world practice is hard. In the next article we will finalize our discussion on emotional awareness and give you real world assessment tools to assess your emotional intelligence.


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