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What Doctors Feel: How Emotions Affect the Practice of Medicine [Kindle Edition]

Danielle Ofri
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (91 customer reviews)

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Book Description

A look at the emotional side of medicine—the shame, fear, anger, anxiety, empathy, and even love that affect patient care
Physicians are assumed to be objective, rational beings, easily able to detach as they guide patients and families through some of life’s most challenging moments. But doctors’ emotional responses to the life-and-death dramas of everyday practice have a profound impact on medical care. And while much has been written about the minds and methods of the medical professionals who save our lives, precious little has been said about their emotions. In What Doctors Feel, Dr. Danielle Ofri has taken on the task of dissecting the hidden emotional responses of doctors, and how these directly influence patients.
How do the stresses of medical life—from paperwork to grueling hours to lawsuits to facing death—affect the medical care that doctors can offer their patients? Digging deep into the lives of doctors, Ofri examines the daunting range of emotions—shame, anger, empathy, frustration, hope, pride, occasionally despair, and sometimes even love—that permeate the contemporary doctor-patient connection. Drawing on scientific studies, including some surprising research, Dr. Danielle Ofri offers up an unflinching look at the impact of emotions on health care.
With her renowned eye for dramatic detail, Dr. Ofri takes us into the swirling heart of patient care, telling stories of caregivers caught up and occasionally torn down by the whirlwind life of doctoring. She admits to the humiliation of an error that nearly killed one of her patients and her forever fear of making another. She mourns when a beloved patient is denied a heart transplant. She tells the riveting stories of an intern traumatized when she is forced to let a newborn die in her arms, and of a doctor whose daily glass of wine to handle the frustrations of the ER escalates into a destructive addiction. But doctors don’t only feel fear, grief, and frustration. Ofri also reveals that doctors tell bad jokes about “toxic sock syndrome,” cope through gallows humor, find hope in impossible situations, and surrender to ecstatic happiness when they triumph over illness.  The stories here reveal the undeniable truth that emotions have a distinct effect on how doctors care for their patients. For both clinicians and patients, understanding what doctors feel can make all the difference in giving and getting the best medical care.

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Tucked inside a white lab coat or scrub suit is a welter of human emotions that can play a large role in a doctor’s decision-making process. Ofri, an internist at New York’s Bellevue Hospital, explores the emotional core of doctoring. Suturing together her own experiences, the plights of memorable patients, and interviews with other physicians, she examines the diverse feelings—anger, grief, shame, disillusionment, gratitude, humility, joy—that can fluster or elevate physicians. “Fear is a primal emotion in medicine,” she writes, and doctors worry about making a mistake or even killing a patient. Sadness is an occupational hazard, and “A thread of sorrow weaves through the daily life of medicine.” Then there’s empathy. Is it innate, acquired, or both, and why do third-year medical students lose it? Ofri exposes her emotional side as she recounts the story of a longtime patient, an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala who finally receives a heart transplant but dies shortly after the procedure. Ofri admits, “Doctors who are angry, nervous, jealous, burned out, terrified, or ashamed can usually still treat bronchitis or ankle sprains competently.” Yet her insightful and invigorating book makes the case that it’s better for patients if a physician’s emotional compass-needle points in a positive direction. --Tony Miksanek


“Taut, vivid prose. . . . She writes for a lay audience with a practiced hand.” —New York Times

"Here is a book that is at once sad and joyful, frightening and thought-provoking.  In her lucid and passionate explanations of the important role that emotions play in the practice of medicine and in healing and health, Danielle Ofri tells stories of great importance to both doctors and patients.” —Perri Klass, author of Treatment Kind and Fair: Letters to a Young Doctor

“An invaluable guide for doctors and patients on how to ‘recognize and navigate the emotional subtexts’ of the doctor-patient relationship.” —Kirkus Reviews

“Yet her insightful and invigorating book makes the case that it’s better for patients if a physician’s emotional compass-needle points in a positive direction.” —Booklist (starred review)

“Rich and deeply insightful. . . . A fascinating journey into the heart and mind of a physician struggling to do the best for her patients while navigating an imperfect health care system.” —Boston Globe

“With grace, courage, humility, and compassion, Bellevue Hospital physician Ofri  gives voice and color to the heartbreak, stress, and joy that attends medical practice.” —Library Journal

“A fabulous read.” —Greater Good

From the Hardcover edition.

Product Details

  • File Size: 956 KB
  • Print Length: 233 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0807073326
  • Publisher: Beacon Press; 1 edition (June 4, 2013)
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B008ED6AGS
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Enabled
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #84,064 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
19 of 19 people found the following review helpful
Decades ago, physicians were taught to keep their emotions separate from the doctor - patient relationship. The fear was that the physician's judgment could be affected and the patient could suffer profound ramifications. Years ago, Dr. Jerome Groopman wrote a best-selling book, "How Doctors Think." It opened the eyes of millions of readers to the psyche of the physician and how an individual doctor's thought processes affect the care of the patient. Now, physician / author Danielle Ofri has written "What Doctors Feel." I've spent the last few days reading it, and would give it my highest recommendation.

I first came across Dr. Ofri's writing with her seminal memoir about medical school, "Singular Intimacies." It is one of the books that inspired me to become a writer as well. With her most recent book, Dr. Ofri's writing has matured, like the physician she has become. The subjects she tackles are large, important, and impactful, especially in today's fractured medical climate. How does the fear of lawsuits affect a doctor's job performance? What about insurance issues? I found parts of the book deeply affecting, and believe that her gift of writing shines through greatest in these.

I highly recommend this book for anyone in the health profession, and especially for college students aspiring to enter the field of medicine. It should be considered for medical school curriculums as well. Five stars.
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28 of 33 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Honest and informative June 16, 2013
The author provides a candid and informative view into a very important topic: how a Doctor handles the complex emotional landscape of medical work. Doctors are generally assumed to be impassive and clinical about their work, but they're human too, and the heart that beats beneath that impassive exterior is subject to the same emotional buffeting that any human being would feel. The author's treatment of the topic, informed by her considerable experience, is highly readable.

One aspect I found inadequately addressed was the tension between two opposites: the obvious need for a patient to be treated as a human being, versus the belief in some quarters of the profession that emotions are unnecessary baggage. Thus, is the fact that students "emerge with their empathy battered" from their exposure to real hospital situations merely an unfortunate aberrance that must be stamped out by better educational / training methods, or is it a necessary part of the education? Can you cut into that heart tissue, or administer a painful treatment to a child if you're as emotionally vulnerable as a lay person? (Surgeons rarely operate on their own kin, as emotional involvement can be detrimental to the outcome). Can a medical student even cut that cadaver if s/he imagines that it was once a living, breathing, feeling, caring human being with family of its own? Isn't a certain element of "emotional deadening" integral to the practice of medicine, much as it might be to a judge's work? These issues perhaps merited greater treatment.

I also found the focus primarily on first-hand experience. True, the book is peppered occasionally by studies carried out by various medical researchers on the topic, but the overwhelming focus is on the author's direct experience.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "Cognition and emotion are inseparable." June 16, 2013
We hope that our doctors will provide us with exemplary care, sound advice, and the proper medication for what ails us. We do not always keep in mind that the person treating us is a fallible individual who may be exhausted, having a difficult day, or struggling with personal problems. In "What Doctors Feel," by Dr. Danielle Ofri, the author parts the curtain that separates the layperson from the medical practitioner, revealing how emotions can play a key role in the doctor-patient relationship, especially in "clinical situations [that] are convoluted, unyielding, or overlaid with unexpected complications...."

We like to think that, after we are admitted to a hospital, we are in good hands. After all, we are protected by protocols that arise from "evidence-based medicine, clinical algorithms, quality-control measures, even medical experience." Unfortunately, an inpatient is subject not just to infections, but also to medical error. The most well-meaning surgeon or clinician can misdiagnose an illness, prescribe the wrong drug, or perform a procedure incorrectly. Fatigued, distracted, depressed, and anxious doctors are more likely to make mistakes than those who are well-rested, unhurried, and calm.

Other scenarios are worth noting. Certain patients complain endlessly; their physicians may became exasperated and subconsciously tune them out. (On the other hand, some doctors may go the extra mile for their more cooperative and appreciative patients.) In today's litigious society, there are specialists who will not take on "difficult" cases for fear of being sued. Troubled doctors may self-medicate with drugs or alcohol, and burned out physicians may be reluctant to admit that they have become thoroughly disillusioned with their profession.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Must-Read for Medical Students July 3, 2013
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
I needed this book. After finishing a surgery clerkship, I was at the lowest place I had been all year. A friend told me at the beginning of the rotation to keep a copy of my personal statement in my pocket, because at times, I would forget why I had chosen to enter medicine. I didn't take his advice, but recognize now that I did become that detached and disillusioned. Thankfully, the combination of a family medicine rotation and having this book to read when patients "would rather not see a medical student" has served the same purpose - if anything, I understand better than ever why I am doing this.

I chose to pursue medicine after realizing that I needed more emotional attachment to the people, and the cause, that I wanted to work for. We talk a lot about `hidden curriculum' in medical school, but I'd take it a step further and say your book discusses the `neglected curriculum' of medical school. I'm almost done with my first year on the wards now, and am familiar enough with patient care to identify with all the `feelings' assigned as chapter titles. Countless times, I've wondered how residents and attendings deal with difficult patient deaths, the joy of successful treatment, medical errors, the reprimanding that takes place during M&M, litigation, etc. All we have to learn from are the behaviors our supervisors respond to these situations with, and so much is left unspoken on account of being `resilient.'

I can't thank Dr. Ofri enough for her willingness to be vulnerable and brutally honest. I greatly appreciated the work she did to present different perspectives on each emotion, with many of the stories not having classic `happy endings.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
2.0 out of 5 stars I am an MD... I also work ...
I am an MD...
I also work with many MDs...
Published 20 days ago by blue blueone
5.0 out of 5 stars The Case for Empathy in the Doctor-Patient Connection
What do doctors feel?" is a question I've asked myself many times, especially in the past decade, as a series of both acute and chronic conditions have led to a dramatic... Read more
Published 1 month ago by Elyse Bloom Greenfield
2.0 out of 5 stars Two Stars
Published 4 months ago by Allison
5.0 out of 5 stars Dr. Ofri provides a glimpse into the heart of ...
Dr. Ofri provides a glimpse into the heart of physician - a key variable in the doctor-patient relationship, rarely if ever disclosed to the patient. Read more
Published 4 months ago by Ken Browne
5.0 out of 5 stars A sincere observation about doctors by a good one. She writes well
A sincere observation about doctors by a good one. She writes well, almost as well as Gawande. As a physician I relate to all the episodes and feelings Daniele expresses, and as a... Read more
Published 4 months ago by Jacyr Pasternak
Remarkable for its clarity, this is a spot-on look at the feeling side of the practice of medicine as the title states. Read more
Published 4 months ago by Louis Siegel M.D.
5.0 out of 5 stars Not a False Note in the Book
I found Dr. Ofri's book to be an honest and blunt discussion of how interacting with patients and investing in their lives every day affects physicians and how emotions play a role... Read more
Published 6 months ago by Gerald O'Malley
5.0 out of 5 stars There is a ton of reading available on the topic but none like what...
I could barely put it down. I'm a graduate student in the field of clinical psychology and have been very interested in the intersection of the medical and mental health care... Read more
Published 6 months ago by Dena Marie DiNardo
2.0 out of 5 stars Two Stars
An empathy-sapping book.
Published 6 months ago by David R. Johnson
5.0 out of 5 stars excellent book
I am a medical student in clinical training and I found so many truisms and life lessons in this book. I will eagerly recommend it to other colleagues. Thank you!
Published 6 months ago by DAVID J SAVAGE
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More About the Author

Danielle Ofri, MD, PhD is the author of the critically acclaimed "What Doctors Feel: How Emotions Affect the Practice of Medicine" (Beacon Press, 2013). She is an associate professor of medicine at New York University School of Medicine and has cared for patients at Bellevue Hospital for over two decades. Her other books are Singular Intimacies: Becoming a Doctor at Bellevue, Incidental Findings: Lessons from my Patients in the Art of Medicine, and her latest book, Medicine in Translation: Journeys With My Patients. Ofri is a regular contributor to the New York Times' Well blog as well as the New York Times' "Science Times" section. She is the editor-in-chief of the Bellevue Literary Review.

Danielle lives in New York City with three endogenously caffeinated kids, an aging lab-mutt, and the forever challenges of the cello.

Visit her website at

Find her author fan page on Facebook at

Photo Credits: Joon Park and John Abbot

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