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The BPS Research Digest published a review of an interesting study on how doctors perceive pain in other people. Using EEG, the study found that the doctors become desensitized to other’s pain. Here’s an excerpt of the review:

When a person looks at someone else in pain, their EEG response typically shows two distinct characteristics: a frontal component after 110ms, which is thought to reflect an automatic burst of empathy, and a more central, parietal component after about 350ms, which reflects a conscious evaluation of what’s been seen.

As expected, the control participants showed an enhanced early and later phase EEG response to the needle pictures compared with the cotton bud pictures. The doctors, by contrast, showed no difference in brain response to the two categories of picture.

This, lets call it defense mechanism (my definition not the authors), is highly useful in professional context: if doctors empathized too much with their patients pain they might be unable to perform the task in hand. While this is the plus side of the issue, the authors stress that this is something that might hurt doctor-patient relationships.

In his book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell points out that, more than malpractice, it’s the doctor-patient relationship that defines whether or not a doctor is sued. The way a patient feels he was treated, the amount of attention he was given, the feeling that his doctor did the best he could and empathize with him, is the strongest determinant for patients suing doctors. Not being empathetic towards patient’s pain may be useful in order to perform the necessary task, but it can do another kind of damage to the patient and, in the end, to the doctor.