Most of the patients had established a relationship with their oncologist -- 90 percent said they had known their doctor for at least six months prior to the study.
According to the researchers, more than two-thirds of the physicians said they were oriented toward the technical aspects of patient care, but most were also highly confident in their ability to deal with patient concerns. Most of the doctors also believed they were comfortable with emotionally charged conversations.
Yet, after reviewing all the tapes, Pollak and her colleagues determined that cases in which doctors responded to patients' concerns with empathy were rare.
Fewer than 300 so-called "empathic opportunities" occurred during the almost 400 conversations. Such opportunities were defined as points at which a patient had verbally expressed negative emotions -- such as fear or worry -- to which the doctor could respond as he or she saw fit.
Female patients were more likely to express such feelings, particularly if their doctor was also female, the researchers observed.
When such emotions were expressed, almost three-quarters of the time, doctors chose to "terminate" the conversation by offering, for example, blanket reassurance that time would solve the problem.
Occasions in which doctors would empathetically promote "continuation" of the conversation by encouraging elaboration and/or expressing some form of understanding or support were far less frequent, occurring little more than a quarter of the time.
Oncologists who offered more empathic statements were younger than those who didn't, and those who stayed longer to converse with the distressed patient were more likely to have described themselves as highly focused on the emotional dimension of patient care.
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