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Oncologists Missing Chances to Show Empathy to Patients

Physicians respond with empathetic statements 22 percent of time; younger docs more likely to do so

WEDNESDAY, Dec. 19 (HealthDay News) -- Oncologists seldom respond with empathy when their patients express emotional concerns, according to research published in the Dec. 20 issue of the Journal of Clinical Oncology. This could cause physicians to miss opportunities to strengthen the doctor-patient relationship and improve patient adherence.

Kathryn I. Pollak, Ph.D., of the Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C., and colleagues analyzed 398 conversations between 51 oncologists and their patients, noting the opportunities that patients presented for empathy and the physicians' responses. Physicians could respond with "continuers" that allowed patients to express more emotions, or "terminators" that discouraged additional disclosure.

Thirty-seven percent of the conversations contained at least one opportunity for empathy, but oncologists only responded with continuers 22 percent of the time. Younger physicians and those who rated themselves as more socioemotional than technical in orientation were more likely to respond with empathy.

"Oncologists and patients need to work to create an alliance conducive to patients expressing their emotions. This happens, in part, when oncologists respond empathically when patients express negative emotions. Oncologists, despite their high levels of confidence in addressing emotions, may need more training to recognize emotions and to learn how to respond to patient concerns. Lastly, this relationship is bidirectional. Many empathic opportunities were indirect, and patients may be more satisfied if they can learn how to express their emotions more directly so that oncologists can respond appropriately," the authors conclude.

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