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Physicians miss opportunities to give emotional support to cancer patients

Research Activities, May 2009, No. 345

When a surgeon or oncologist talks with a newly diagnosed lung cancer patient, the physician often misses many chances to provide emotional support to the patient. Instead of noting and addressing the patient's worries and concerns, the physician often responds to patient concerns by talking about biomedical aspects of cancer diagnosis or treatment, a new study reports.

Based on the researchers' analysis of transcripts of 20 patient-doctor consultations concerning newly diagnosed lung cancer, researchers identified 384 empathic opportunities, but found that physicians provided empathic responses to only 39 (10 percent) of them. Half of the physicians' expressions of empathy occurred toward the end of the consultations with the patients, despite chances to provide such emotional support throughout the discussion. Physicians responded with empathy most often to opportunities involving health care system issues (23 percent) or statements about difficulty in making treatment decisions (21 percent). Less than 10 percent of the empathic responses from physicians addressed patient concerns about symptoms and death related to the diagnosed cancer, although these were the concerns raised most frequently by patients.

The researchers suggest that their findings can be used to improve physicians' empathic responses, especially when communicating with patients who have a life-threatening illness. They suggest that physicians can offer empathy earlier and at intervals during their conversations with patients, and that such encounters could be brief while still helping to build rapport and trust. The study was supported in part by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (HS10876).

Additional information can be found in "Missed opportunities for interval empathy in lung cancer communication," by Diane S. Morse, M.D., Elizabeth A. Edwardsen, M.D., and Howard S. Gordon, M.D., in the September 2008 Archives of Internal Medicine 168 (17), pp. 1853-1858.

Current as of May 2009
Internet Citation: Physicians miss opportunities to give emotional support to cancer patients: Research Activities, May 2009, No. 345. May 2009. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Rockville, MD.