It takes both IQ and EQ to make an effective doctor

Female doctor talking to male patient in hospital bed
It's time medical schools and healthcare organizations place value on emotional intelligence. (Getty/monkeybusinessimages)

While medical schools and healthcare institutions have long valued IQ as measured on tests, academic records and training at prestigious hospitals, it’s time to also take into account an individual’s emotional intelligence or EQ to find the most effective doctors.

It takes both—IQ and EQ—to ensure an excellent, caring doctor who can lead healthcare teams and help engage patients, write Ezekiel J. Emanuel, M.D., and Emily Gudbranson, in a JAMA viewpoint.

But medicine has typically overemphasized IQ and ignored, or at least underemphasized, emotional intelligence, say Emanuel and Gudbranson, both with the department of medical ethics and health policy at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.


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“In medicine, IQ is necessary to master and critically assess the volume and complexity of information integral to contemporary medical education. But past this threshold, success in medicine is ultimately more about emotional intelligence,” they write, defining EQ as the ability to manage emotions and interact effectively with others.

21st century clinicians need three abilities: To effectively lead teams, coordinate care and engender behavior change in patients and colleagues, they argue. The ability to lead and effect behavior require negotiating skills. “Thus, effective physicians need both an adequate IQ and a high EQ,” they write.

Other research suggests a key to more compassionate doctors who are less likely to feel burned out is exposing medical students to the arts. A study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine found that enjoying or participating in the arts was linked to important qualities for future doctors including wisdom, empathy and tolerance of ambiguity.

Stanford University is one institution using the arts to help physicians communicate about their work and emotions. The university has a writers group that allows clinicians to share their work, as well as a dinner and discussion series in which physicians can use literature as a mechanism for discussing their challenges.

Doctors are also encouraged to embrace outside interests to help prevent burnout. For example, Paul Parker, M.D., a Georgia pediatric surgeon, plays bluegrass music in a band with other physicians as a way to reduce stress.

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