Study: Specialists seldom show empathy

In medicine, there's certainly one school of thought that holds that a doctor's job is to be detached and impartial, not break down with patients when he or she has to give them bad news or hold their hand through their fear and confusion. That doctrine has been taken to heart widely, if a recent survey is any indication.

The study, which appears in the Archives of Internal Medicine, analyzed transcripts of 20 audio recordings of consultations between men with lung cancer. The men were speaking with surgeons or oncologists at a Veteran's Affairs hospital. During the consultations, the men gave the specialists 384 opportunities to show empathy in response to comments such as "this is overwhelming" and "I'm fighting it."  However, the surgeons and oncologists only responded 39 times out of the 384, or about 10 percent of the time.

When interviewed on this subject, doctors generally say that they believe it's their job to stay calm and uninvolved. And some patients benefit from this approach, as it helps them gain perspective. However, the study authors note, doctors treating terminally ill patients continue to struggle with where they should draw the line between offering potentially-false hope and and needlessly discouraging the patient.

To learn more about this study:
- read this Chicago Tribune piece