A good dose of empathy: Just what the patient ordered

Sept. 11, 2012, 12:49 p.m.

Empathetic doctors usually means better medical outcomes for patients, according to a new study. (Mae Ryan/KPCC)

Does it matter whether your doctor can relate to you? Does an understanding doc – who tries her or his best to connect with you on a personal level – provide better medical care?

After studying nearly 21,000 patients and nearly 250 physicians, all of whom were within the Italian health care system, researchers say the answer is yes.

The new report in Academic Medicine found that patients of doctors who are more empathetic see better results and fewer complications. Researchers defined empathy as doctors' understanding of what patients' concerns were and what kind of pain patients were experiencing. It was also defined, in part, by the willingness and intention of doctors to help.

The study's authors said Italy's health care system played a role in the findings as well: There's a lower rate of patients who switch from doctor to doctor there, which makes for longer-lasting relationships between patients and their providers. That, in turn, makes it easier for them to get to know each other on a more personal level.

Dr. Felix Aguilar, the chief medical officer of South Central Family Health Center, echoed the study's findings, telling OnCentral earlier in September that when his clinic hires physicians, the ideal candidate has empathy and language skills – on top of medical know-how.

Nina Vaccaro is the executive director of the Southside Coalition of Community Health Clinics, and says empathy is "an important part of any health care system."

"I think within the safety net it's particularly relevant, because you're dealing with patients that have some pretty complex health issues, as well as some psychosocial issues that may have to do with food security, job security, housing security," she said. Issues, in other words, that the "normal middle-class American," as she put it, may not be dealing with.

Vaccaro says she used to do house calls with diabetic patients, all of whom were low-income and uninsured. One woman in particular couldn't keep her diabetes at bay, even though she'd received all the information she needed to do so. But then Vaccaro saw why the woman struggled.

"We went and visited her at home," she said. "[Her family] had no money to buy food, and the cheapest thing available to them was tortillas. She ate 13, 14 tortillas a day."

Vaccaro said anecdotes like that ought to prompt providers to "look outside the box" when it comes to understanding the "root causes" of health issues among the safety net patient population, because it may not always be practical for those patients to take doctors' advice.

"We have to be understanding about the circumstances under which patients are living," she said.

The lead author of the study, Dr. Mohammadreza Hojat, is a research professor at Jefferson Medical College. He said in a statement that the study's findings support the "importance of assessing and enhancing empathetic skills in undergraduate and graduate medical education."

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