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Comparing oncologist, nurse, and physician assistant attitudes toward discussions of negative emotions with patients.

Morgan PA, de Oliveira JS, Alexander SC, Pollak KI, Jeffreys AS, Olsen MK, Arnold RM, Abernethy AP, Rodriguez KL, Tulsky JA. Comparing oncologist, nurse, and physician assistant attitudes toward discussions of negative emotions with patients. The journal of physician assistant education : the official journal of the Physician Assistant Education Association. 2012 Sep 19; 21(3):13-7.

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PURPOSE: Although research shows that empathic communication improves patient outcomes, physicians often fail to respond empathically to patients. Nurses and physician assistants (PAs) may be able to help fill the need for empathic communication. Our study compares the attitudes of oncologists, nurses, and PAs toward communication with patients who demonstrate negative emotions. METHODS: We analyzed surveys from 48 oncologists, 26 PAs, and 22 nurses who participated in the Studying Communication in Oncologist-Patient Encounters trial. Surveys included previously validated items that examined attitudes toward communication with patients about emotion. RESULTS: The mean age of oncology physicians was higher (49 years) than that of PAs (40 years) or nurses (43 years), and 19% of physicians, 81% of PAs, and 100% of nurses were female. Race, years of oncology experience, and previous communication training were similar across provider types. Most nurses (82%) and PAs (68%) described themselves as having a socioemotional orientation, while most oncologists (70%) reported a technological/scientific orientation (p < .0001). PAs and nurses indicated more comfort with psychosocial talk than did oncologists (p < .0001). Discomfort with disclosing uncertainty and provider confidence and expectations when addressing patient concerns were similar across provider types. CONCLUSIONS: PAs and nurses were more oriented toward socioemotional aspects of medicine and were more comfortable with psychosocial talk than were oncologists. Future studies should examine whether these differences are attributable to other factors, including gender, and whether nurses and PAs are more likely than physicians to demonstrate empathic behaviors when patients express negative emotions.

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