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Study Finds Doctors Lack Empathy

Posted by Chrissie Cole
Tuesday, September 23, 2008 12:02 PM EST
Category: Major Medical
Tags: Doctors, Oncologist, Mortality, Lung Cancer, Empathy

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IMAGE SOURCE: © iStockPhoto/ doctor taking notes/ author: sstop

Empathy is an important patient-physician communication that many doctors seem to lack even when their patient’s seem to ask for it, according to a recent study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

For the study, Dr. Diane Morse, assistant professor of psychiatry and medicine at the University of Rochester in New York and colleagues evaluated audio transcripts from 20 consultations between lung cancer patients, oncologists and surgeons at a Veteran Affairs Hospital in Houston.

In total, there were 384 instances for the doctors to show their patients empathy and only 10 percent (or 39 doctors) were able to express it.

“Doctors responded to 10 percent of empathic opportunities. When patients shared concerns, physicians shifted the conversation to medical responses. Doctors had difficulty answering the majority of patient concerns, which were about patient fears, worsening conditions and angst about death and dying,” Dr. Morse said.

Oncologists were a little more caring than the surgeons, responding empathically 14 percent of the time, compared with 6 percent for surgeons.

In one instance, a lung cancer patient was talking to his doctor about how much time he was expected to live and asked, “I don’t know what the average person does – is it one, two or three years?”

The physician replied, “I think… you certainly could live for two to three years. Although I think it would be unlikely… But, I would say an average figure would be several months to a year or a little more.”

And in another case a patient said, “This is all kind of overwhelming, you know… I’ve had anxiety problems in the past. I go to the [mental health clinic]…”

To which the doctor replied, “Okay.”

Earlier studies show, patients who are shown empathy are more satisfied and at ease with their medical experiences, which results in less anxiety and better understanding of their health condition.

Often times, a simple “I know this is very scary,” or “I can imagine how tough this has been” is all it takes to make people feel at ease, said Dr. Morse.

Empathy is not something doctors can learn [or be taught] in school. It’s something that comes from within and few people are able to express it. Talking about life and death is difficult for everyone, including physicians, wrote researchers.

“This difficulty may be due to limited cure options that result in a sense of failure and/or identification with the patient is difficult for the physician to express or acknowledge and may raise within the physician awareness of his or her own vulnerability to mortality and illness,” the study concluded.

There is hope, a 2002 study in the journal Lancet shows that physicians can learn better communication skills including compassion and empathy. #


2 Comments

Anonymous User
Posted by A. Hajjaran
Tuesday, September 23, 2008 2:35 PM EST

Empathy is the same as "the emotional rationale" that if added to "the academic rationale", would make every doctor, even a Dr. in politics, a tolerable and perfect one.

Anonymous User
Posted by Laura
Tuesday, September 23, 2008 3:37 PM EST

The profit motive has no place in health care. Let's start socializing our health care system so we can have a voice in it. We need the government (which is us) to protect us from profiteering. Other nations do a much better job of health care than the U.S. It's the doctors through the AMA and Congress who stand in the way of us having a sane and compassionate health care system.

Comments for this article are closed.

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