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Physicians May Lack Empathy in Treating Veterans with Lung Cancer


Empathy is an important element of effective communication between patients and physicians and is associated with improved patient satisfaction and compliance with recommended treatment. However, previous research has found physicians respond to empathic opportunities in 38% of surgical cases and only 15-21% of primary care cases. This study explored empathic statements and physician responses among 20 veterans (10 Caucasian, 10 African American) presenting for initial treatment recommendations for lung cancer at one large southern VA hospital between 4/01 and 3/04. Investigators analyzed consultations between the veterans and nine VA physicians (three oncologists and six thoracic surgeons).

Findings show that physicians rarely responded empathically to lung cancer patients’ concerns: investigators identified 384 empathic opportunities and found that physicians responded empathetically to 39 (10%). In an analysis examining when physicians’ empathic responses occurred, most (50%) occurred in the last third of the encounter. Physicians generally responded more consistently with empathy when patients presented concrete and positive, rather than abstract or negative concerns. The authors note that there may be several reasons why physicians may not display empathy; for example, they may be too busy to recognize opportunities, or they may believe that biomedical information is more reassuring.

PubMed Logo Morse D, Edwardsen E, and Gordon, H. Missed opportunities for interval empathy in lung cancer communication. Archives of Internal Medicine September 22, 2008;168(17):1853-1858.

Dr. Gordon was supported by an HSR&D Career Development Award and is part of HSR&D’s Center for the Management of Complex Chronic Care, Hines, IL.

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What are HSR&D Publication Briefs?

HSR&D requires notification by HSR&D-funded investigators about all articles accepted for publication. These journal articles are reviewed by HSR&D and publication briefs or summaries are written for a select number of articles that are then forwarded to VHA Central Office leadership to keep them informed about important findings or information. Articles to be summarized are selected by HSR&D based on timeliness of the findings, interest of leadership, or potential impact on the organization. Publication briefs are written for only a small number of HSR&D published articles. Visit the HSR&D citations database for a complete listing of HSR&D articles and presentations.