After he was diagnosed with pemphigus vulgaris in 2004, Paul Konowitz, MD, lost 25 pounds, was out of work for 16 months and developed depression and a dependency on painkillers. He also received very different reactions from the 10 doctors who treated him. “I had some experiences that were totally unempathetic [with] people who I never got the feeling understood what I was going through,” he said. Leaving his oncologist’s office one day, a physician offered him a slice of pizza, which he could not eat because of the severe sores in his mouth. When he had strong abdominal pain, his gastroenterologist neglected to call him back at first with biopsy results; when he finally did call, “it was clear he did not care,” Dr. Konowitz said.
Armed with firsthand experience of the patient’s perspective, Dr. Konowitz, medical director for the South Suburban Center for Otolaryngology at Mass Eye and Ear Associates and clinical professor of otology and laryngology at Harvard Medical School, connected with Helen Riess, MD, creator of an empathy training program designed to teach physicians about the neurobiology and physiology of emotions. With Dr. Konowitz’s help, Dr. Riess later piloted her empathy training program with 11 otolaryngology residents at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary (MEEI). After participating in three 90-minute sessions, the residents reported an increased ability to empathize with their patients (Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. 2011;144:120-122).