Empathetic Doctors Better for Patients

A large, emerging cross-cultural study has found that empathetic doctors are better for patients, leading to better health outcomes.

The study found that, for instance, diabetic patients treated by empathic physicians suffered from fewer medical complications, said Commonhealth. Although the study did not research why a meaningful connection was more successful for patients, it did suggest that the patient-physician bond went beyond clinical activity. The study was conducted by a team of Thomas Jefferson University and Italian researchers.

The team evaluated physician empathy and clinical outcome relationships in 20,961 diabetic patients and 242 physicians in Italy, said Commonhealth. The study appears in the September 2012 issue of Academic Medicine and followed up on a smaller study, also published in Academic Medicine in March 2011. The smaller study involved Thomas Jefferson University and research into physician empathy and how empathy impacts patient outcomes. The study involved 891 diabetic patients and 29 physicians and also found that patients of physicians who scored high on empathy also saw better clinical outcomes compared to physicians who scored lower, said Commonhealth.

“This new, large-scale research study has confirmed that empathic physician-patient relationships is an important factor in positive outcomes,” said Mohammadreza Hojat, Ph.D., research professor, Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior; and director, Jefferson Longitudinal Study of Medical Education in the Center for Research in Medical Education and Health Care at Jefferson Medical College, according to Commonhealth. “It takes our hypothesis one step further. Compared to our initial study, it has a much larger number of patients and physicians, a different tangible clinical outcome, hospital admission for acute metabolic complications, and a cross-cultural feature that will allow for generalization of the findings in different cultures, and different health care systems.”

The smaller study used the results of a hemoglobin A1c test and cholesterol levels ad found a direct link between a higher physicians JSE score and improved control of patients’ hemoglobin A1c and cholesterol level.

The larger study involved a population of over 284,000 adult patients in the Local Health Authority, Parma, Italy; the population also involved 242 primary care physicians, said Commonhealth. The Jefferson Scale of Empathy (JSE), which was created in 2001 to measure empathy in the context of medical education and patient care, was also used for the study. Commonhealth noted that the JSE is a validated instrument utilizing the definition of empathy in the context of patient care as a “typically cognitive attribute involving understanding of patient concern, pain, suffering, and plan to help.”

Commonhealth wrote that, according to the release, a number of factors strengthened the validity of study outcomes. For instance, due to Italy’s universal health care coverage, there are no differences in insurance, lack of insurance, or financial barriers to care.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) wrote that medical educators are, more and more, seeing the need for physicians to express empathy without becoming overly attached to their patients and their suffering, which might take away from their care.

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