Emotional Intelligence: Practical Application in Health Care

In our previous article we introduced you to emotional intelligence by defining the concept while highlighting the research connecting emotional intelligence to leadership and organizational success. We also explored some questions regarding emotional intelligence. We believe emotional intelligence is important because it helps physician leaders improve their ability to manage their emotions, inspire and motivate staff, and build stronger relationships with various stakeholders.


We concluded the first article with the following quotation from the Harvard Business Review:

In hard times, the soft stuff often goes away. But emotional intelligence, it turns out, isn’t so soft. If emotional obliviousness jeopardizes your ability to perform, fend off aggressors, or be compassionate in a crisis, no amount of attention to the bottom line will protect your career. Emotional intelligence isn’t a luxury you can dispense with in tough times. It’s a basic tool that, deployed with finesse, is key to professional success.

We believe this “basic tool” can be used to help ensure the success of healthcare leaders. In this article we will explore the application of emotional intelligence in healthcare practice.

Delivery of Care

Much of the health-care related investigation of emotional intelligence has been conducted in the areas of patient care and medical education. The use of emotional intelligence has been shown to lead to higher patient satisfaction and improved clinical performance. Through employing emotional intelligence, healthcare providers are able to recognize and use emotions to facilitate communication, decision-making, and gathering information. Akerjordet and Severinsson concluded that, “Emotional intelligence integrates important personal and interpersonal skills, which can lead to flexibility in handling change and better quality of care in the future, creating a more humanistic, compassionate and healing environment within health care.”

Unfortunately, studies have also shown that critical emotional intelligence competencies are usually missing from clinical evaluation. These competencies include team management, empathy, initiative, self-awareness, integrity, and conflict management. While high value is placed on emotional intelligence competencies in a healthcare environment, it appears that practicing and applying emotional intelligence competencies in this environment is a challenge.

Often, the training physicians receive does not include emotional intelligence components. In the Education in Primary Care article titled, “From Marshmallow to Medicine: The Case for Emotional Intelligence in Medical Education,” Brian McMullen stated, “Since emotional problems account for about 30 percent of general practice consultations, it is reasonable to expect that a doctor would learn about emotional intelligence during training,”

Several studies have provided evidence that empathy, a key component of emotional intelligence, actually declines in medical students during the course of their medical education. This lack of training and education may be related to the coping mechanism in medicine of detaching from emotions.

In the study, “Emotional Intelligence in Medical Education: Measuring the Unmeasurable?” published in Advances in Health Sciences Education, Lewis, et al, found that: “Although it makes sense that an ability to recognize and manage emotion in oneself and others is an important skill for doctors, there is a tangible tension in medicine concerning the whole field of emotion in practice. Traditionally, detachment has been valued in medicine, reflecting a belief that emotions will somehow interfere with a doctor’s ability to carry out his or her job. An argument is often made that doctors must maintain distance from patients in order to generate objectivity in diagnosis and treatment.”

Empathy is most often demonstrated through the interpersonal communication between patient and physician. One study that investigated the impact a training program in interpersonal communication had on patient satisfaction indicated that patient satisfaction was higher and physician practice was improved because patients provide more information, which led to more accurate diagnosis, and efficient and effective treatments.

Healthcare Leadership

In the Health Care Manager article, “Emotional Intelligence: A Core Competency for Health Care Administrators,” Professors Louis Rubino and Brenda Freshman stated the value of emotional intelligence in healthcare administration is “fundamental for getting along in the workplace and is a primary leadership and managerial competency.” They proposed the following emotional intelligence model, with examples of how such competencies could be demonstrated in administrative roles within healthcare organizations.

Emotional Intelligence and Healthcare Administration

Component Definition Examples of Application
Self-awareness Having a deep understanding of one’s emotions, strengths, weaknesses, needs, and drives.
  1. Confidently making decisions when budgets must be trimmed in medical areas.
  2. Recognizing that the late night committee meetings were affecting your family relationships.
Self-regulation A propensity for reflection, ability to adapt to changes, saying no to impulsive urges.
  1. Know when to step away if having an argument with a provider.
  2. Act to correct medical billing compliance issues rather than ignore them.
  3. Accept responsibility over additional health care facilities.
Self-motivation Driven to achieve, being passionate over profession, enjoying challenges
  1. Set up a senior manager retreat to allow the best environment for planning.
  2. Be optimistic even when census was low.
  3. Embrace diverse populations of patients and employees.
Social awareness Thoughtfully considering someone’s feelings when acting.
  1. Think of the family’s perspective when involved in bioethical decisions.
  2. Be compassionate when dealing with employees and their personal problems affecting their work.
  3. Be patient-centered.
Social skills Moving people in the direction you desire
  1. Be able to negotiate a favorable managed care contract.
  2. Have employees satisfied with their performance evaluation.
  3. Use good listening skills when talking with governing board members.


Although emotional intelligence has been shown to be important in improving administration and delivering excellent patient care, much less research has been conducted on the links between emotional intelligence and physician leaders. There have been few studies, to our knowledge, that link hospitalist medical directors and the use of emotional intelligence to their leadership approach.


Betty Till is an executive coach and president of LifeWork Solutions. She has worked with hundreds of physicians and other clinical leaders on leadership development, most often with those who are transitioning into leadership roles or who are working to become more conscious leaders. She is a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach (CPCC) and a Certified Physician Development Coach with more than 25 years in health care.




Michael Cherry, Ed.D., is an associate of LifeWork Solutions and a professor of business communications, marketing and organizational development. He is an executive coach whose specialties include emotional intelligence, team development, strategic planning, Not-for-Profit management, and job transition coaching.