How Empathic Is Your Doctor?

Does it matter if you have an empathic physician?  According to the results of a recently published study, physicians’ empathy may actually improve patient outcomes for chronic diseases such as diabetes [1].

Researchers from Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia recently tested the hypothesis that physicians’ empathy is associated with positive clinical outcomes in diabetic patients.  The study included 891 patients with diabetes who were treated at a university affiliated outpatient setting over a duration of 3 years.  The patients themselves were treated by a total of 29 physicians who were themselves tested with the Jefferson Scale of Empathy.  Physicians were then put into three groups:  high, moderate, and low empathy scorers.

Primary outcome measurements for this particular study included hemoglobin A1C (a measure of long-term glycemic control) and LDL cholesterol levels.  Patients who had physicians with high empathy scores were more likely to have good control of their blood sugar or hemoglobin A1C (56%) than those whose physicians had low empathy scores (40%, p< .001).  The study had similar findings for management of LDL cholesterol.  While the proportion of patients with good LDL cholesterol control was 59% for patients managed by physicians with high empathy scores, it was significantly lower for those managed by physicians with lower empathy scores (44%, p< .001).

The study authors concluded:

“Confirmation of the hypothesis that physicians’ empathy is associated with positive clinical outcomes suggests that empathy should be viewed as an integral component of physician competence.”

They continued:

“Research provides support for the aforementioned explanations. For example, it has been reported that physicians’ understanding of their patients’ perspective—a key feature in the definition of physician empathy enhances patients’ perceptions of being helped, improves emotional empowerment,and increases patients’ perceptions of social support networks.”

Though there are no hard-and-fast rules to determine how empathic your doctor is, intuitively you may be able to determine if you feel understood by your physician.  Though the results of this study are specific to diabetes, it’s very conceivable that they generalize to other chronic health conditions.  As such, having an empathic doctor could go a long way towards improving your health.


  1. Hojat M, Louis DZ, Markham FW, Wender R, Rabinowitz C, Gonnella JS. Physicians’ Empathy and Clinical Outcomes for Diabetic Patients. Acad Med. 2011 Mar;86(3):359-364.

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