Maximum Empathy

I just completed reading a very interesting book about cross-cultural medical care.  The book, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, and deals with the problems physicians face when treating one Hmong girl in Merced and the problems the parents of this child face when dealing with Western medicine.  One interesting describes the progression of physician empathy levels over time.

The desnsitization starts on the first day of medical school, when each student is given a scalpel with which to penetrate his or her cadaver: ‘the ideal patient,’ as it is nicknamed since it can’t be killed, never complains, and never sues.  The first cut is always difficult.  Three months later, the students are chucking pieces of excised human fat into a garbage can as nonchalantly as if they were steak trimings.  The emotional skin-thickening is necessary–or so goes the conentional wisdom–becuase without it, doctors would be overwhelmed by their chronic exposure to suffering and dispair.  Dissociation is part of the job…

At Stanford Medical School, in an admirable attempt to fight this trend, students are informed during the first semester that their empathy may already have peaked; if they succumb to the norm, it will plunge steadily during their four years of medical school and their first year of residency.


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