Breast Cancer Awareness: Another Reason Doctors Should Practice Emotional Intelligence

10/19/2010 05:35 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Breast Cancer Awareness Month is marked by a number of quiet contradictions. Pink, a color which once connoted naïve girlie softness, was reclaimed and is the symbol of women on a mission to stamp out breast cancer by any means necessary. We laugh with newly made friends as we participate in walks or runs for the cure with others who are also honoring their loved ones who were stolen by breast cancer.

This month is also an aggressive campaign to encourage women to get mammograms and screenings that will lead to early detection of breast cancer. Usually, the earlier breast cancer is detected, the greater the chances for survival. However, many women avoid visits to the doctor because the typical doctor's visit--especially for women of color--is enough to make you sick.

Most visits begin with the front office staff treating you like a number. A nurse collects you from the waiting area and dumps you into an examination room where you wait 10, 20, 40 minutes to see the doctor. The physician's questions are often asked in a routine and impersonal manner. Before you can ask your first question, your physician is off to see another patient. The insensitivity of the visit is enough for some to ignore the health providers' recommendations, or worse, the patient may decide to never return for a follow up visit.

Certainly, there are medical professionals who give us their best and confirm that there are great doctors and nurses out there. Some call it good bedside manner. Others call it compassionate care. I call it strong Emotional Intelligence.

Emotional Intelligence is the ability to control the emotions of one's self and of others in a way that allows for effective leadership. In an age when the business of health care seems to be squeezing the empathy out of patient care, Emotional Intelligence is an invaluable tool for helping medical professionals develop the trust and rapport that is necessary for creating a strong patient-provider relationship. EI consists of four core competencies--self management, social-awareness, self-awareness and relationship management-- that are integral for quality patient care.

Just think, if the front desk clerk lacks the self-management skills to handle the stress of a busy waiting room and lashes out at a patient, that patient may leave before even being treated. If a male nurse lacks social-awareness skills, he probably will not notice when a Muslim woman patient seems uncomfortable when he grabs her arm to take her blood pressure. If the administrator lacks self-awareness, she may miss the solutions that grant unusual patient requests while still complying with hospital policy. And, if the doctor does not have the relationship management skills to ask questions that go beyond the textbook, he will probably not get an accurate medical history for the patient and might misdiagnose her.

When you add a layer of racial, ethnic and cultural differences between the health care professional and the patient, the chances for misunderstanding and miscommunication increase exponentially.

The Center for Studying Health System Change found, "Although differences in insurance coverage and other patient, community and health system factors contribute to disparities, studies indicate that disparities can arise during the patient-physician encounter." Indeed, since 2001, The Commonwealth Fund has studied racial and ethnic differences in patient perceptions of bias and cultural competence and found that more black, Latino and Asian patients feel judged, looked down upon and misunderstood than their white counterparts. The Commonwealth Fund's 2001 Health Care Quality Survey found that patients who reported being treated disrespectfully were less likely to follow a doctor's advice or indefinitely postponed the medical care they need.

In part, the consequence of patients feeling unwelcomed by the medical community are health disparities drawn along racial lines. According to the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation, black women are less likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer, yet we are 38 percent more likely to die from the disease than white women. Based on research gathered by the Hispanic Health Council, Latinas are 33 percent less likely to have breast cancer than white women but they die from the disease at higher rates. The mortality rates for women of color are often attributed to being diagnosed and treated at later stages.

If we are truly going to encourage all women to proactively manage their health, our medical institutions have to do more than just open their doors. We must also eliminate the barriers to inclusion that can make patients feel like interlopers. Strong Emotional Intelligence skills, which are manifested by providing attentive health care, are essential pieces to the puzzle for eliminating breast cancer.