Clinical question: What effect does hospitalist empathy have on patient anxiety, ratings of physician communication, and duration of encounter?
Background: Physician empathy is associated with better patient-reported and medical outcomes in a number of settings. The effects of hospitalist empathy have been less well studied.
Study design: Observational study of audio recordings of hospitalist admission encounters.
Setting: General medical service at two urban hospitals within an academic medical center from August 2008 to March 2009.
Synopsis: Admission encounters (76 patients, 27 hospitalists) were recorded. Researchers detected negative emotional expressions from patients and characterized resultant physician replies as either empathic (“focuses toward further expression of emotion”), neutral (“focuses neither toward nor away from emotion”), or nonempathic (“focuses away from emotion”). Through use of regression models, response frequency was compared with change in pre/post-encounter patient anxiety, patient ratings of physician communication, and duration of encounter. Every additional empathic response was associated with a small decrease in anxiety, better ratings of physician communication, and no change in encounter duration. Nonempathic responses were associated with worse communication ratings. Limitations of the study include its observational nature, small sample size, exclusion of non–English-speaking patients, absence of data on nonverbal communication, and exclusively urban academic setting.
Bottom line: Empathic hospitalist responses during admission encounters are associated with reductions in patient anxiety and better ratings of physician communication without increases in encounter duration.
Citation: Weiss R et al. Associations of physician empathy with patient anxiety and ratings of communication in hospital admission encounters. J Hosp Med. 2017;12(10):805-10.
Dr. Kanjee is a hospitalist, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, and instructor in medicine, Harvard Medical School, Boston.