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.
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.