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Docs' Sensitivity to Patients' Feelings Tied to Good Outcomes

WEDNESDAY, Sept. 12 (HealthDay News) -- "Bedside manner" really does seem to matter. Patients with empathetic doctors have better outcomes and are less likely to experience complications, according to a new study.

The findings confirm previous research, which found that the more empathy a physician had the better their patients fared, researchers from Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia and the Local Health Authority in Parma, Italy, suggested in their report published in the September issue of Academic Medicine.

The researchers assessed the doctors' empathy using the Jefferson Scale of Empathy. This measure defines empathy as an intention to help, and an understanding of a patient's concerns, pain and suffering.

The study examined the association between clinical outcomes for nearly 21,000 people with diabetes and the level of empathy of 242 doctors in Italy.

To determine the impact the doctors' empathy had on treatment outcomes, the researchers relied on the hemoglobin A1c test (a test of average blood sugar) and the participants' cholesterol levels. The study revealed a direct association between higher physician empathy scores and better test results.

The researchers also looked for incidents of significant complications among the diabetic patients, such as diabetic ketoacidosis (which occurs when the body lacks insulin) and coma. A total of 123 patients were hospitalized due to complications in 2009. The study authors noted, however, that physicians with higher empathy scores had a lower rate of patients with serious complications.

"This new, large-scale research study has confirmed that empathic physician-patient relationships is an important factor in positive outcomes," Mohammadreza Hojat, research professor in the department of psychiatry and human behavior at Jefferson Medical College, said in a university news release.

"It takes our hypothesis one step further. Compared to our initial study, it has a much larger number of patients and physicians, a different, tangible clinical outcome, hospital admission for acute metabolic complications, and a cross-cultural feature that will allow for generalization of the findings in different cultures, and different health care systems," Hojat added.

In addition, the findings "support the recommendations of such professional organizations as the Association of American Medical Colleges and the American Board of Internal Medicine of the importance of assessing and enhancing empathic skills in undergraduate and graduate medical education," Hojat concluded in the news release.

More information

The American Academy of Family Physicians has more on doctors and empathy.

-- Mary Elizabeth Dallas

SOURCE: Thomas Jefferson University, news release, Sept. 10, 2012

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