"We propose that the emotional labor of physicians is characterized by the display of empathy," said Dr. Eric B. Larson, director of Group Health's Center for Health Studies and co- author of a commentary in the March 2 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.
"Empathy is essential to healing relationships, so it's something all health professionals should be expected to show even when it's hard to do so."
Drawing from previous research that equates service workers' labor to the work of stage actors, Larson and co-author Xin Yao, a doctoral student in the UW Business School, describe a model for applying acting techniques to the delivery of empathy in doctor-patient interactions. They suggest that doctors use two techniques separately or in combination 'deep acting,' which uses imagination and emotional memories to generate genuine feelings of empathy for the patient, and 'surface acting,' in which the doctor forges emotional expressions inconsistent with internal feelings. This would allow the doctor to display behaviors the patient can interpret as empathic.
The authors contend that deep acting is preferred because it makes doctors more effective healers. They also believe doctors have greater professional satisfaction and less professional burnout when they practice deep acting, but may have to rely on surface acting when genuine empathy seems impossible. Surface acting may be needed, for example, in situations in which the doctor's values or beliefs are entirely different from the patient's.