The Duke Center for Palliative Care thinks that doctors can show more empathy, and a team of researchers there have designed a computer tutorial to teach physicians how to communicate
Empathy is a big part of what patients consider a doctor's bedside manner. The simplest definition of empathy is understanding what another person is feeling. A broader definition includes the ability to share in those feelings. For doctors, understanding their patients' cares and concerns can make a huge difference in patient satisfaction. This is especially important when those doctors are oncologists treating cancer patients confronting a life-threatening disease.
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The goal of empathic training is to have doctors respond more appropriately and helpfully to patient fears and concerns. Courses can cost in the thousands of dollars. Now one doctor has designed a CD tutorial that streamlines the teaching process to about an hour and costs only $100. A study testing its effectiveness found that it greatly improved the way oncologists responded to their patients' fears and concerns.
Previous studies indicated that oncologists respond to patient distress with empathy only about a quarter of the time. A 2008 study of lung cancer patients found that their doctors responded empathically only about 10 percent of the time when such responses would have been appropriate.
Here's an example from the 2008 study, where a patient discusses the role of smoking in the development of his lung cancer:
Patient: No, sir, I've never had a heart attack, Supposedly, I worked very hard when I was a young man, a young boy. I was doing a man's labor and I was always told I had a good strong heart and lungs. But the lungs couldn't withstand all that cigarettes....
James A. Tulsky, director of the Duke Center for Palliative Care thinks doctors can do better. Tulsky has seen that when cancer patients bring up their worries, doctors often change the subject or focus on the medical treatment rather than the patients' emotional concerns. He also notes that responding empathically is a skill set that's often foreign to doctors. It's not that the doctors are uncaring, it's that they need to learn how to communicate their cares better. So Tulsky and his colleagues designed a computer tutorial to teach doctors how to do so and then put it to the test.