Do patient attributes predict oncologist empathic responses and patient perceptions of empathy?

Journal Article (Journal Article)

PURPOSE: Most patients with advanced cancer experience negative emotion. When patients express emotions, oncologists rarely respond empathically. Oncologists may respond more empathically to some patients, and patients may perceive different levels of empathy and trust given past documentation of disparities in cancer care. METHODS: We audio-recorded 264 outpatient encounters between oncologists and patients with advanced cancer at three sites. We examined whether patient gender, age, race, marital status, education, economic security, and length of relationship with oncologist were related to oncologist empathic responses to patient's negative emotion and patient's perceptions of oncologist empathy and trust. RESULTS: Half (51%) of the patients expressed a negative emotion. Oncologists sometimes responded with empathy (29%). Oncologists were equally empathic with all patients, except they were more empathic with patients with low economic security compared with those reporting high economic security (p = .002). Patients with low economic security viewed oncologists as more empathic (p = .06) compared with those with moderate security. Married patients also viewed oncologists as more empathic (p = .04). Patients who knew their oncologist for more than a year had more trust than patients who knew their oncologists for less time (p = .02). CONCLUSIONS: Oncologists, in general, did not respond empathically to patient's negative emotion, and did this equally for most patients. Oncologists responded more empathically to patients who were less economically advantaged. In turn, patients with lower economic security perceived more empathy. Although oncologists need more education in responding empathically, they may not need to correct many biases in care.

Full Text

Duke Authors

Cited Authors

  • Pollak, KI; Arnold, R; Alexander, SC; Jeffreys, AS; Olsen, MK; Abernethy, AP; Rodriguez, KL; Tulsky, JA

Published Date

  • November 2010

Published In

Volume / Issue

  • 18 / 11

Start / End Page

  • 1405 - 1411

PubMed ID

  • 19838742

Pubmed Central ID

  • PMC3371388

Electronic International Standard Serial Number (EISSN)

  • 1433-7339

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)

  • 10.1007/s00520-009-0762-8


  • eng

Conference Location

  • Germany