Oncologists missing chance to show empathy to patients

February 1, 2008

Oncologists seldom respond with empathy when their ptients express emotional concerns.

Oncologists seldom respond with empathy when their ptients 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, PhD, of the Duke University Medical Center in Durham, NC, 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% of the time. Younger physicians and those who rated themselves as more socioemotional than technical in orientation were more likely to respond with empathy.

Pollak KI, Arnold RM, Jeffreys AS, et al. Oncologist communication about emotion during visits with patients with advanced cancer. J Clin Oncol. 2007;25:5748-5752.