Empathy and the physician patient relationship

Is anyone else tired of hearing about how important empathy is in the physician-patient relationship?  Every other day it seems a new study is talking about the therapeutic value of empathy.  Enough already!

It’s not that I don’t believe that empathy is important, I do.  I also believe the data that links physician empathy with improved patient outcomes, increased satisfaction, and better patient experiences.

A recent study released in Academic Medicine reported that “patients of physicians with high empathy scores were significantly more likely to have good control over their blood sugar as well as cholesterol, while the inverse was true for patients of physicians with low scores.”

Findings from this study are consistent with a 2009 study which found that among patients with the common cold those with physicians displaying high empathy had a significantly shorter duration of illness and trend toward lesser severity of illness and higher levels of immune response, compared to those patient whose physician displayed less empathy.

Going back further, in a 2001 review of 25 randomly controlled studies that looked at the influence of the practitioner-patient interac­tions outcomes concluded that,

one relatively consistent finding is that physicians who adopt a warm, friendly, and reassuring manner are more effective than those who keep consul­tations formal and do not offer reassurance.

The problem with empathy research is that no one, including doctors, seems to be any paying attention as attested to the fact that nothing has changed.  Research documenting the therapeutic value of empathy goes back at least 20 years.  Despite the evidence, it seems that physicians are no more empathetic today than when people first started researching empathy.

Today we are told the health care is supposed to be evidence–based.   I wish that was the case when it came to empathy and the physician-patient relationship.  If it were we would have a lot more empathetic physicians, healthier patients, and much more satisfying patient experiences.

Steve Wilkins is a former hospital executive and consumer health behavior researcher who blogs at Mind The Gap.

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