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For Some Doctors, Empathy Is in Short Supply
Date:9/22/2008

Study finds they miss patients' cues about fears of well-being, even death

MONDAY, Sept. 22 (HealthDay News) -- Doctors are missing their cues when it comes to opportunities to empathize with the plight of their cancer patients, a new study suggests.

While doctors are able to address such concerns as medication issues, missed appointments, or pain, they tended to skirt "existential" issues, such as questions dealing with life and death, which are of paramount importance to most patients, the study authors said.

"Physicians only responded to 10 percent of empathic opportunities and, when patients raised existential concerns, physicians tended to shift more to biomedical responses," said study author Dr. Diane Morse, an assistant professor of medicine and psychiatry at the University of Rochester Medical Center, in New York. "Physicians had trouble addressing the bulk of concerns, which were about patient fears, concerns about death or dying, or worsening conditions."

Yet this may be the most important point of intersection between a doctor and his or her patient.

"The relationship between a patient and a physician is more than just the delivery of a diagnosis or a treatment plan," said Dr. Arthur Frankel, a professor of medicine at the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine. "Basically, for cancer care, if you're not able to form a close tie with your patient and improve their quality of life, then there's a real question as to what you are doing.

"We can hopefully, at times, make suggestions or do things with patients that may buy some time and, in some cases, long-term remissions. But, by and large, the major job of an oncologist is to bond with the patient and the patient's family and help them with a crisis," added Frankel, who's also director of the Cancer Center, Cancer Research Institute and Division of Hematology/Oncology at Scott & White Hospital in Temple, Texas.'/>"/>

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