Computers teach physician empathy

With growing attention to the role of physician empathy in patient care, a number of programs have popped up around the country aimed at enhancing doctors' communication skills. Despite the purported benefits of better patient relations and potentially reduced errors offered by face-to-face communication seminars, physicians may be hard pressed to sacrifice the time and expenses to attend.

But a new computer-based tutorial developed at Duke University has been shown to teach oncologists how to better connect and build trust with their patients, according to a study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

"Earlier studies have shown that oncologists respond to patient distress with empathy only about a quarter of the time," said Dr. James A. Tulsky, director of the Duke Center for Palliative Care and lead author of the study, in a press release. Doctors trained using the CD-ROM tutorial, which provided feedback on the doctors' own audio recorded visits with patients, however, responded empathically twice as often as those in the control group. In addition, they were better at eliciting patient concerns and getting important conversations to unfold, according to the study.

Compared to a multi-day course costing as much as $3,000 per doctor, physicians could use such tutorials in their offices or homes in a little more than an hour at a cost of about $100, according to the press release.

Despite this and other advances in promoting better physician communication, a recent essay in the New York Times calls into question whether the physician empathy movement represents just another passing fad in medicine.

"How do we even measure these skills?," author Dr. Lisa Rosenbaum asked. She said, "empathy may as well have been my middle name when she began her medical internship. ... During one of my clinical training sessions, a patient told me no physician had ever made her feel more at ease. The next [patient] cautioned that I made too much eye contact, sat too close and 'invaded' her personal space."

Perhaps such feedback is not an indication that empathy is overrated so much as a reminder that when it comes to patient relations, one size does not fit all. Therefore, the more physicians can do to increase emotional intelligence, the better they may be able to adapt their approach to particular patients.

To learn more:
- read the press release from Duke University School of Medicine
- check out the study abstract from the Annals of Internal Medicine
- read the essay and blog post from The New York Times