Perspective: Does Medical Education Promote Professional Alexithymia? A Call for Attending to the Emotions of Patients and Self in Medical Training

Shapiro, Johanna PhD

Academic Medicine:
doi: 10.1097/ACM.0b013e3182088833

Emotions—one's own and others'—play a large role in the lives of medical students. Students must deal with their emotional reactions to intellectual and physical stress, the demanding clinical situations to which they are witness, as well as patients' and patients' family members' often intense feelings. Yet, currently few components in formal medical training—in either direct curricular instruction or physician role modeling—focus on the emotional lives of students. In this article, the author examines patients', medical students', and physician role models' emotions in the clinical context, highlighting challenges in all three of these arenas. Next, the author asserts that the preponderance of medical education continues to address the emotional realm through ignoring, detaching from, and distancing from emotions. Finally, she presents not only possible theoretical and conceptual models for developing ways of understanding, attending to, and ultimately “working with” emotions in medical education but also examples of innovative curricular efforts to incorporate emotional awareness into medical student training. The author concludes with the hope that medical educators will consider making a concerted effort to acknowledge emotions and their importance in medicine and medical training.

Author Information

Dr. Shapiro is professor of family medicine and director, Program in Medical Humanities & Arts, University of California, Irvine, School of Medicine, Irvine, California.

Correspondence should be addressed to Dr. Shapiro, Department of Family Medicine, Rte. 81, Bldg. 200, Ste. 512, 101 City Dr. South, Orange, CA 92868; telephone: (949) 824-3748; fax: (714) 456-7982; e-mail:

First published online January 18, 2011.

© 2011 Association of American Medical Colleges