Empathy is an important key to most areas of clinical health and to how clinical professionals relate to the people they treat. This skill can make a huge difference in…

empathetic doctor with patient in wheelchair

New Program to Help Doctors Empathize With Cancer Patients

Empathy is an important key to most areas of clinical health and to how clinical professionals relate to the people they treat. This skill can make a huge difference in the processes and recovery of any ailment by adding trust between the doctor and patient, but it can be especially difficult for some medical specialties. In particular, studies have shown that oncologists have a particular problem expressing empathy to their patients. However, with a new system developed at Duke University, oncologists can learn how to be empathetic to most effectively help their patients fight cancer.

The Problem

A large number of oncologists recognize the need for empathy when interacting with patients, but they do not know how to incorporate it. However, few have the necessary time and the money to spend on seminars and long training programs in order to learn how. A common contributor to oncologists’ lack of empathy is because many doctors simply miss the signs and cues from their patients. Duke University recognized this problem and has created a computer feedback tutorial to help find a solution. James A. Tulsky, M.D., director of the Duke Center for Palliative Care, stated in a press release that, “By teaching physicians to use explicit empathic language when communicating with distressed patients, we have a chance to improve patient quality of life.”

Studies and Research

In 2007, the Duke University Medical Center began studies to discover how well oncologists interact with their patients. They began by video recording almost 400 interactions between 51 different oncologists and 270 patients who were suffering from advanced cancer. When reviewing these interactions, researchers marked where the patients displayed negative emotions, which they called empathetic opportunities, and then how the doctors replied. The empathetic opportunities can be displayed through fear or worry and can be presented indirectly or directly. The doctors who replied with ’empathetic responses’ responded by legitimizing patients’ emotions and by encouraging them on their strength.

The studies concluded that when presented with an empathetic opportunity, oncologists replied empathetically a mere 22% of the time. Lead investigator Kathryn Pollak, Ph.D, a social psychologist at Duke, said in the press release from Duke Cancer Institute that, “The goal of the study was to assess how oncologists address patient negative emotion, and the results demonstrate a need for interventions to train clinicians and patients to handle negative emotions when they arise in clinic interactions.”

Interactive Tutorial Training Program

Due to the results of previous studies, Duke University Medical Center created a computer program to teach them how to use empathetic opportunities to help their patients. “Oncologists are among the most devoted physicians — passionately committed to their patients,” Tulsky said. “Unfortunately, their patients don’t always know this unless the doctors articulate their empathy explicitly. It’s a skill set. It’s not that the doctors are uncaring, it’s just that communication needs to be taught and learned.” This program takes real-life recordings of conversations between the doctor and the patient and gives positive and negative feedback accordingly.

The program provides intervention in their home or office for a little longer than an hour, and for only $100 (as opposed to several thousand dollars for a typical seminar). Along with the intervention is a CD lecture about communication skills that helps the doctor be able to identify empathetic opportunities. The researchers at Duke then tested the CD lecture, and their results show an incredible increase in the trust between doctor and patient. In addition with past studies on the topic of physician-patient trust, it also shows that the patients probably feel better because they now believe that their doctor is on their side and will do whatever possible to help them beat their cancer. Though the CD program is not widely distributed yet, the team hopes it can soon be made available to other doctors.

When patients discover they have cancer, they must put a substantial amount of trust in their oncologist. If their oncologist does not speak to them empathetically, it makes that step difficult. Duke University hopes that the tutorial program will help doctors begin to understand their patients on a deeper level in order to build the trust they need to help their patients fight cancer.

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