Emotional intelligence in clinical practice

College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta CPSA, Latest News Archive, Medical Matters, Messenger 18 Comments

Last month, I had the privilege of spending a couple evenings talking to some of Alberta’s medical and surgical residents about physician leadership. I left each of those discussions invigorated by their interest, enthusiasm and passion for being future healthcare leaders. Times like this fill me with confidence that the future of the medical profession is in good hands.

However, there was a comment that came up in the discussion that I’ve reflected on over the past few days. I want to share it with all of you because I feel it’s very pertinent to physician leadership and provides some food for thought about where health care is going over the next few years.

During a session, a young colleague told me that throughout medical training, students are often encouraged to manage, bury or ignore their emotions, as there is a belief that emotions can lead to bad decision-making. Medical training has instilled this belief directly and indirectly for decades, but this comment made me think about it in more detail. Perhaps suppressing emotion is one of the reasons physicians sometimes struggle as leaders. This could also be related to our increased struggles as clinicians.

How does emotion impact leadership?

You may wonder why suppressing emotion is an issue for physician leaders. I myself hadn’t given this much though until just recently, when I started doing some work with emotional intelligence and leadership. I have grown to appreciate that emotions can be a powerful source of information to improve the decisions we make. The challenge is being able to recognize our emotions and the information we observe through them, without allowing those emotions to overwhelm us or lead us to make a purely emotional decision.

Emotions can be a powerful tool for leaders, if understood and properly used to gather valuable information. People with high emotional intelligence embrace the information their emotions provide them and recognize the emotions in others that impact decisions and behaviours.

From a clinical perspective, one of the things we tend to hear from patients is that doctors don’t care about them anymore—that physicians have lost the sense of compassion patients need when they’re unwell. Conversely, we hear about physicians suffering with compassion fatigue and burnout. Is it that physicians are too compassionate? Or have we been ignoring or suppressing normal, human emotions for too long? I don’t know the answer, but we may want to start thinking more about it.

The role of emotional intelligence in the age of artificial intelligence

As the landscape of health care becomes increasingly digital (with technologies like machine learning and artificial intelligence), an essential requirement for the survival of the medical profession will be physicians delivering what only people—not computers—can uniquely provide, such as emotions, empathy and creativity. Technology’s democratization of knowledge means our profession no longer holds all the medical information that has historically been our strong suit.

The physicians that will thrive will be those who can provide the human side of medicine. Completely suppressing emotions will, eventually, no longer be viable.

The time I spent with Alberta’s next generation of physicians and surgeons invigorated me and reinforced my faith in our future leaders. It also raised concerns that we may be setting these young people up for future challenges if we don’t take time to understand the powerful role emotions can play in the work of physicians and physician leaders.

Your comments are appreciated,

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Vince Paniak

Timely and relevant article Scott. The elephant was in the room for a long time. I saw the need in other profession’s leadership throughout my life. The leaders/professionals that made it integral to their careers and family life benefited themselves, and society.

Scott McLeod

Hi Vince,

Thanks for reading the messenger and thanks for taking time to provide a few comments. I look forward to more people such as yourself making this a part of our routine conversations. Take care.


Lauren Bilinsky

This is such a timely read! I am sad to be finishing a rotation with a preceptor who has been the epitome of humanism. It has been inspiring to work with him – observing both patient and team interactions. I started this rotation feeling burned out. Even though it’s been a busy rotation I am leaving feeling more energized after working with this caring, empathic team. This article made me reflect on how much I have appreciated preceptors and senior residents who role model EQ in their patient care and leadership. Another article (https://tinyurl.com/yxk4pp4r) recently reminded me to express my… Read more »

Scott McLeod

Hi Lauren,

Thank you so very much for sharing your personal experience. I love to hear from people who recognize that empathy can be energizing. All the very best!


Scott McLeod

Good morning everyone,

Sorry for the delay in responding. I was seizing the diastole, by attending my son’s convocation in Ottawa.

I just want to say thank you to everyone who took the time to provide a comment. I think it’s clear this is a subject that needs more airtime within our profession. I really enjoyed the article that Elisa shared with us and I would encourage everyone to read it. If anyone is interested in putting together a follow-up article on this for a future Messenger, please feel free to reach out and we’ll support you.

Take care!


Jane Lemaire

Thank you Scott for this important conversation. Our emotions are important for our work as physicians, and for our personal wellness as human beings.

R. Chris Altmeyer, MD, CCFP

Sir, (Scott),

There is the expression, “We are not thinking machines, we are feeling machines that think.”

Agreed. EQ / SQ is vital to physician leaders, but also more so to clinical care: the primary care BATHE technique, the patient centered interview AKA “FIFE’ing” a patient, good communication skills for patient outcomes and patient safety, avoidance of college complaints and dreaded lawsuits, and for better clinical experiences (decreasing burnout).

Essential knowledge and skills for physicians, and one that can be learned and honed with dedicated practice.

Needs to be highly emphasized, encouraged, and promoted to all Medical Students, Residents, and Attending’s.

Wanda Lester

Hi Scott Thank you for your comments. This is so important! A psychoanalyst Peter Fonagy in London UK has been a leader in studying and writing about “mentalizing” which I will summarize as pondering “what am I feeling and thinking? what are my motivations and intentions?” along with “what might the other person be feeling and thinking? what might the other person’s motivations and intentions be?” Early parent child experiences (secure attachment) and having a parent who mentalizes about the child help a child to become someone with emotional intelligence /ability to mentalize. People can improve this ability with some… Read more »

Allan Donsky FRCPC Pscyhiatry, FRCPC Pediatrics

When I manage, ignore, bury, deny, invalidate or criticize my feelings, I dehumanize myself. It is unclear when or why emotions became demonized but they seem to have found a special place in the wasteland of existence. Once that tragic step was and continues to be taken, the natural and logical consequences are disconnection from self and others with no healthy outlets for expression and transformation of the deepest parts of our humanity. This results in the maladies of our profession including burnout, perfectionism, compassion fatigue, increased rates of substance use and the ultimate tragedy of suicide. There are reasons… Read more »


The hierarchy in medicine (more pronounced in some work places than others), being overwhelmed with amount of learning are some of the factors responsible for suppressing emotions. As a consequence we have physicians who make poor leaders.


Back in the bad-old-days, pretty well all that physicians could truly offer their patients were “emotional intelligence” skills, and a grab bag of herbs and roots (reminiscent of some alternative health providers maybe). Then medicine became scientific, with the result that docs decide what’s best for patients by-the-numbers, and patients can be left feeling they’re “a number not a name”. Without even touching on the financial drivers of modern medicine… Hard on docs too, who can justifiably fear losing to computers, if we’re simply playing a numbers game. Evidence-based medicine, personalized genetic medicine, big data in healthcare – all might… Read more »

Bosun Ogundipe

Thanks Doctor Scott for thinking out aloud on Emotional intelligence. As Physicians are assuming leadership positions both in the healthcare and other sectors of our society, there is a need to encourage future healthcare leaders to not be reluctant to embrace their true North. Psychologist have established that there are other intelligence’s including Emotional intelligence (EQ) and Social intelligence (SQ) besides the well known Intelligence Quotient (IQ) that combine to make an effective leader stand out and outperform other leaders in many fields of human endeavor. Daniel Goreman, in his work titled “knowing your true North” talked about authentic leaders… Read more »

Das Madhavan

Scott, that is an excellent way to invite a discussion on a subject many physicians would hesitate to embark on. Thank you. In an era which believes physicians can be easily replaced by AI and more efficient, infallible robots while totally ignores the emotional aspect of a ‘caring’ physician, who wouldn’t be baffled. Even when we successfully employ old age home caretakers and replace care from burnt out next-of-kin of demented patients, would it be that easy to gear up for AI doctors? Or could be another of the social experiments for a disastrous outcome? With an increasing effort from… Read more »

Alan Chu

Check out the work of Dr. Rachel Remen, whose clinical career has shown her that showing up as a whole person (which is not the same as indiscriminate sharing) does NOT impair her clinical effect, but rather enhances it! It certainly enhances our effect in our other roles (admin, programming, education)!

Chris Evans

Absolutely! What a moving, honest and eye opening article. Thank you for the link Dr. Mori Torres. And keep up the great work Scott!

Dr. Jarad Stephan

Hi Scott, This is a very important topic. I work as a pain specialist and get to see first hand the struggle that patients (and care providers) have with learning how to effectively manage their thoughts and emotions regarding their circumstances. Effective management strategies will help move a person move their life forward in the direction they desire it to proceed based on their values. Ineffective management strategies will keep a person stuck where they are as they make themselves victims of their circumstances. There are effective ways to actively manage mental and emotional health (ex. cognitive behavioral modalities such… Read more »

Linda McFarlane

Thank you Scott. As a public member of CPSA council I really appreciate your article about the importance of emotion in patient care! Emotions are an important source of information and they connect us as people.