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A growing body of evidence suggests that when healthcare practitioners enhance the way they express empathy, that this may improve healthcare outcomes. Specifically, enhanced empathy appears to:

  • reduce patient pain, depression, anxiety1,2
  • increase patient satisfaction3 and improve patient well-being4
  • improve medication adherence5
  • reduce practitioner burnout6
  • reduce patient complaints and medico-legal risk7
  • reduce medication use8

Arguing against this, Bloom recently suggested that empathy is harmful.9 Further adding to the confusion, Aronson claims that ‘true’ empathy is not possible.10–12 Meanwhile, the difference between empathy, compassion, and ‘patient-centred care’ is also unclear. In order for patients to reap the benefits of (what has been called) empathy, several questions need to be answered as follows:

  1. How has empathy been defined in clinical studies that evaluate practitioner empathy and/or its impact on patient care?
  2. How does empathy differ from compassion, and ‘patient-centred care’?
  3. When is empathy (according to the definitions above) helpful/harmful to (a) patients, and (b) practitioners?

References

  1. Di Blasi Z, Harkness E, Ernst E, Georgiou A, Kleijnen J. Influence of context effects on health outcomes: a systematic review. Lancet 2001; 357(9258): 757-62.
  2. Mistiaen P, van Osch M, van Vliet L, et al. The effect of patient-practitioner communication on pain: a systematic review. Eur J Pain 2015.
  3. Derksen F, Bensing J, Lagro-Janssen A. Effectiveness of empathy in general practice: a systematic review. Br J Gen Pract 2013; 63(606): e76-84.
  4. DiLalla LF, Hull SK, Dorsey JK, Department of F, Community Medicine SIUSoMCUSAlse. Effect of gender, age, and relevant course work on attitudes toward empathy, patient spirituality, and physician wellness. Teaching and learning in medicine 2004; 16(2): 165-70.
  5. Attar HS, Chandramani S. Impact of physician empathy on migraine disability and migraineur compliance. Annals of Indian Academy of Neurology 2012; 15(Suppl 1): S89-94.
  6. Thomas MR, Dyrbye LN, Huntington JL, et al. How do distress and well-being relate to medical student empathy? A multicenter study. Journal of General Internal Medicine 2007; 22(2): 177-83.
  7. Moore PJ, Adler NE, Robertson PA. Medical malpractice: the effect of doctor-patient relations on medical patient perceptions and malpractice intentions. West J Med 2000; 173(4): 244-50.
  8. Howick J, Fanshawe TR, Mebius A, et al. Effects of changing practitioner empathy and patient expectations in healthcare consultations. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2015.
  9. Bloom P. Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion: Bodley Head; 2016.
  10. Aronson JK. Jeffrey Aronson: When I use a word . . . Empathy and compassion. BMJ; 2016.
  11. Aronson JK. Jeffrey Aronson: When I use a word . . . A word about empathy. BMJ Blogs; 2016.
  12. Aronson JK. When I use a word    Empathy—fact and fiction: BMJ Blogs; 2016.

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