Monday, September 10, 2012

A doctor's empathy is beneficial for the patient

There is variety between the performance of doctors or physicians when it comes to curing patients. And that is not just because of their ability to prescribe the right pill or send you to the right specialist. Apparently, the level of empathy a doctor has for his or her patients affects clinical outcome. It has been shown that higher empathy results in fewer complications, which obviously is beneficial for the patient.

Primary care
A total of 20.961 patients suffering from diabetes and their 242 primary care physicians were enrolled in the study. In order to assess empathy, the doctors had to answer a set of pre-defined questions, of which the answers were used to calculate a score. This score then represents the doctor's level of empathy, although this is of course not quite an exact science. Nevertheless such tools are useful to assess psychological parameters, with questionnaires often being the only usable method.

In order to assess the effects of more or less empathy on clinical outcomes, the researchers measured important clinical variables in diabetes care. They included things such as diabetes-induced coma or other indications that require urgent hospitalization. When comparing physicians with low and high empathy scores, analysis showed that the latter group had less patients with complications. The scientists already published a similar study last year, though that one contained far less patients and physicians. In this study, they measured disease markers like cholesterol level, instead of meaningful clinical outcomes such as the aforementioned complications.

Because the scientists already showed last year that empathy leads to better control of disease markers, it seems that the two studies nicely relate to each other. It raises the suggestion that empathy induces better control of meaningful disease markers which correspondingly results in a lower level of bad outcomes, such as diabetes-induced coma.

Now, the researchers have shown with more evidence that empathy is an important predictive, and modifiable, factor in diabetes healthcare. Because of the results, physician behaviour could be a meaningful parameter in studies attempting to assess quality of care. Even though the published results make sense, it is still quite shocking to learn that the attitude of a doctor can cause complications, which could fairly easily lead to unnecessary death of diabetes patients.

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