Empathy -- identifying with and understanding another person's situation and feelings -- has been linked with improved patient satisfaction, including less anxiety and better compliance with treatment. Physicians, residents and medical students also show evidence of more satisfaction and less burnout if they provide empathy, Morse said.
For the study, she and her colleagues analyzed 20 audio-recorded and transcribed interactions between male patients with lung cancer and their thoracic surgeons or oncologists.
The researchers identified 384 "empathic opportunities," but found that the physicians responded empathically to only 39 of them. Each encounter elicited an average of less than two empathic responses from the doctor.
Empathic opportunities included patient statements such as, "This is kind of overwhelming," and "Im fighting it."
When the doctors did show empathy, half the time it was in the last third of the encounter, even though patients had been raising concerns throughout the session.
"Physicians are more comfortable about things they know what to do about, like 'I ran out of my medicine,' 'I couldn't get appointment,' 'I'm having pain,'" Morse said. "But when the patient asks how much longer do I have to live, it's scary. It's hard to know what to say."
"It would be helpful for physicians to think about having a response ready," Morse added. "The bulk of patients' concerns are existential and physicians don't necessarily have to do something to fix it. Just acknowledging it, in and of itself, can be very helpful and it doesn't take a lot of time."
Added Frankel: "The most important job of a physician is also the most important job for a minister or for a lawyer or anyone else: To try and help people cope with the uncertainties of life."
The findings are published in the Sept. 22 issue of Archives of Internal Medicine.
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