September 23, 2008

Study: Physicians Show Little Empathy

By Rita Rubin

Doctors might be superb at diagnosing and treating diseases, but they could use a lesson or two about how to care for their patients' psyches, a study suggests. It found that cancer specialists and surgeons rarely responded with empathy to patients' concerns.

Researchers assessed transcripts of 20 audio recordings of consultations between men with lung cancer and surgeons or oncologists at a Veterans Affairs hospital. The transcripts revealed 384 opportunities for the doctors to show empathy -- patient comments such as "this is overwhelming" and "I'm fighting it" -- but they missed all but 39, researchers write in Tuesday's Archives of Internal Medicine.

"They really responded more to the concrete patient concerns and not so much to their existential fears about living and dying," says lead author Diane Morse, assistant professor of psychiatry and of medicine at the University of Rochester in New York. "I think doctors themselves can feel vulnerable about the issue of death and dying. It is a scary subject, especially if it's someone who has cancer and is close to their own age."

Previous studies have shown that patients whose doctors show empathy are more satisfied with their medical encounters, which leads to a better understanding of their condition and lower anxiety, Morse and her co-authors write.

"All people go to medical school because they want to help people," Morse says. Sometimes, she says, a simple "I know that this is really scary" can go a long way in making patients feel better. (c) Copyright 2008 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc. <>