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Enough About Physician Empathy

Is anyone else tired of hearing about how important empathy is in the doctor-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 by Hojat, et al. are consistent with a 2009 study by Rakel, et al. 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 patients 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 interac­tion outcomes, Di Blasi, et al. 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’re told that healthcare is supposed to be evidence-based. I wish this was the case when it comes to empathy and the doctor-patient relationship. If it were, we’d have a lot more empathetic physicians, healthier patients, and much more satisfying patient experiences.

What do you think?


Hojat, M. et al. “Physicians’ Empathy and Clinical Outcomes for Diabetic Patients.” Academic Medicine March 2011, volume 86, issue 3, pp 359-364.

Rakel, D. et al. “Practitioner Empathy and the Duration of the Common Cold.” Family Medicine, 2009; 41(7): 494-501.

Di Blasi, Z. et al. “Influence of context effects on health outcomes: a systematic review.” Lancet, 2001; 357 (9258): 757-62.

*This blog post was originally published at Mind The Gap*

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3 Responses to “Enough About Physician Empathy”

  1. I agree that empathy or the presentation of a “warm, friendly, reassuring manner” does make a difference. Patients want something from their physicians… a sympathetic hand on the shoulder or an Rx. Witness the value of the placebo. In Germany 1 out of 2 doctors admitted to prescribing them, and in Bavaria, 88% (

    Perhaps it’s not evidence based medicine that is the roadblock, but the curriculum of American medical schools, emphasizing science over patients.

  2. Am not sure what you’re saying here, Steve. But I’m confident that empathy is not about data.

  3. Elaine,

    Hi. My point is that despite 30 years of research linking the quality of physician-patient communications to improved outcomes, better quality, reduced costs and vastly increased patient satisfaction…nothing seems to change. I could just as easily substituted agenda setting, assessing patient belief systems, etc. all important communications functions for empathy.

    Poor quality physician-patient communications = poor quality care.

    Steve Wilkins

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