Why Physicians Don’t Cry

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In general a physician is surrouned by fear, pain and loss – not a fun way to start your day after bringing your kids to school, yet I’ve hardly see any physician cry. While crying is one of the more fundamental sentiments of human beings, it would be reasonable to see physicians cry more than people in other jobs, wouldn’t it. Sure, there are people who just got sacked from Lehman Brothers or middle managers that missed out on a bonus that pays the kids’ christmas presents, yet there is hardly any job out there where you are constantly dealing with bad things in life.

However, have you ever seen a physician cry? I assume – not many. It’s an uncommong thing to do or to see – depending on which side of the table you’re at. Why? Because ultimately it’s a job – and it is just not something we do. When you look at physicians’s case loads, we would have enough reasons to cry a lot more often (especially if you work in oncology or another specialty with a high mortality rate). A physician has to act strong, be an anchor for relatives of patients and find a balance between evidence-based medicine and empathy towards the patient.

But what exactly happens when patients see doctors cry? Patients would certainly feel irrritated, they might lose respect and confidence in their physician. But, in the long run, could it improve the doctor-patient relationship? I could not find a single study on this subject (if you know of one, please let me know in the comments) and yet I believe it’s an important topic that ought to be adressed – at least in certain fields of medicine.

Vingerhoets and Cornelius have pointed out in their book  “adult crying – a biopsychological approach”, that crying actually improves your mental health. Moreover, on Medpedia there is an ongoing discussion about this topic and a great statement by a physician. One line I’d like to point out, because I personally think it’s very true:

….the empathy should be therapeutic [for the patient, as well as the doctor].

via Medpedia

Do you agree?

5 COMMENTS

  1. Just curious why you think “patients would certainly feel irrritated, they might lose respect and confidence in their physician” if they see their physician cry? Is this based on personal experience/observation or just an assumption?

    Also, I think there are different types of crying. If I were a patient in a difficult situation, I would not think any less of the physician if they shed a tear or 2. But if they started bawling and lose control, that’s different…

  2. As a patient, I wouldn’t want my physician to burst into tears every time I received routine lab results. But physicians who have “welled up” when giving devastating news to family members were actually *more* respected. It made my family feel that our beloved family member was more than just a case study to her physician. It didn’t make her doctor less of a physician.

    Interestingly, I rarely see nurses cry, either… but once in a while, when a situation calls forth a great amount of empathy, a few tears might result. Of course, families seem to want nurses to fulfill a slightly different role, with very different communication styles.

  3. I do know a number of doctors who have cried – secretly on the bathroom…but not because of the medical routine but e.g. mobbing…
    Having worked in oncology for years I can tell you that – in contrast – laughing with colleagues was the best way to deal with the dark side of our work..and sharing empathy with the patients. Empathy clearly is most important – it makes them feel respected and taken seriously, but not bursting into tears in front of them or family members – that doesn’t bring the situation forward….

  4. Hi Tim,

    this is mostly based on assumptions. It’s based on experience working as a doc. It is also part observation of hospital environment or doctors practicing in private practices.

    I agree that there are various ways of crying and expressing one’s fear and pain, yet I think in general crying among physicians is a taboo and not so common phenomenon.

    Lukas

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