31. Paying homage to the Empathy Police.


By all means grab it by the stem and de-root it, but be careful to bend properly at the knees. Above all don’t feel sorry for it.

How did that make you feel?

A question asked by a million news and sports reporters, usually following a tragic or catastrophic moment, such as falling over the first hurdle in the Olympics, having trained for 4 years day and night.

Most people don’t have, or need to have, the kind of vocabulary to describe their feelings on these occasions. The correct British response is to massively understate any emotional effects of such an event, such as saying you were slightly disappointed but otherwise had a very nice day.

A little like Abraham Lincoln’s wife’s theatre review.

Now the idiotic question beloved of crap reporters everywhere, may be asked by surgeons, misguidedly trying to improve their approval ratings: How did you feel when…(you found we had removed the wrong kidney and left two swabs and a sandwich inside you?)

We know that empathy plays a massive part in the quality of relationships. We know it plays a key role in psychotherapy. We also know that some people have very non-empathic personalities, but that doesn’t always stop them from becoming surgeons, or even psychiatrists. It doesn’t even stop them from attempting to run workshops in emotional intelligence.

Can empathy be learned? What’s your instinct on this one? Having attended (at gunpoint, it must be added) occasional ‘workshops’ designed to improve EI, I would say not. If it’s truly a type of intelligence, which is debatable, then it’s pretty unlikely to change much. Otherwise, why call it intelligence? Asking this question during each workshop made me feel unpopular, maybe hated, I wouldn’t know.

Take this sentence from today’s Times newspaper:

‘Its not very difficult to ask the question next time I have a consultation, ‘How did that make you feel?’ which just makes you a better doctor’.

This question is described as a ‘cultural signifier’ to patients that doctors were taking them seriously.

In the same article we learn that last year the number of ‘serious medical blunders’ doubled, so that there were 299 ‘never events’ such as surgery on the wrong body part. These events illustrate the real meaning of carelessness, which is entirely different from feeling you are not being taken seriously.

I know that these remarks are probably misquoted and taken out of context. Perhaps the person quoted, Prof Ben Bridgewater, is the most empathic person you could ever hope to meet.

Nevertheless, I am lost for words to express my feelings about his remarks, save for the usual, though rather dated rejoinder, ‘beam me up Scotty’.

In fact, quite large numbers of doctors are following the bumble bees and are returning to their motherships. They didn’t join up on the basis of competing against colleagues in a league table, nor do they wish to collect tons of bogus documentation to run past the GMC every five years. So we are set to lose a large number of valued part time and older colleagues, much as we lost a whole generation of experienced ‘old- school’ nurses (and some old school-nurses) when PREP started.

When surgeons start facing the Empathy Police I fear many of them will hang up their gowns and wellies.

All this matters this week because I have hurt my back. In what I now know should be called a ‘never event’, I tried to lift something very heavy in the garden, and felt ‘something go’, way down in the lower sacral spine.

In fact I am not looking for any empathy at all on this one. Not even genuineness, warmth, or unconditional positive regard. I’m hoping not to have to fill in any questionnaires or rating scales. I don’t want the transference or counter transference interpreted.

Also, I don’t want to be taken seriously – lets keep it light should we?

In fact, I’d prefer a rather brusque and disdainful approach. After all it was pretty silly doing what I did. I really wasn’t following my own advice at all, which is to limit gardening activity to occasional chemical warfare against insurgent weeds, backed up by sound diplomacy.

So really, a telling off is fine. But what I want to obtain is a reasonable armoury of painkillers and ideally, an encounter with some kind of scanning machine.

And if I’m asked how I feel I will say I am slightly disappointed.


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