What Patients Want: Empathy from Physicians

Richard A. Kimball, Jr.
Richard A. Kimball, Jr.

One day a young woman complains of headaches and sees a physician who then performed tests, prescribed painkillers, and tells her to come back if her symptoms do not subside. Turned off by the costs and the strictly business-like manner of her doctor, the woman never went back. Several months later, a family doctor discovered that she had cancer and by that time, it has already metastasized.

In the world of population health, patient advocates would blame the first doctor for his failure to diagnose accurately. On the other hand, physicians would say that the patient’s inability to follow instructions to come back is the culprit. In truth, a successful health care system depends on both the patient and the physician working together. In other words, a healthy relationship leads to better health outcomes.

The woman decided never to go back to the first doctor because she felt no connection to him. To her, the visit simply cost her a significant amount of time and money. This lack of relationship influenced her decisions to the detriment of her health. If she had been compelled to return to the doctor because she valued their interactions, the cancer could have been detected earlier.

Many studies have shown that patients who tend to see the same preferred physician had fewer hospitalizations. Patients who reported a partnership-like relationship with their doctors were more satisfied with their overall health care and felt more empowered. They also reported more manageable symptoms.

One population health study concluded that physician empathy, as perceived by patients, was highly correlated with trust and exchange of information. Patients who rated their physicians as more empathetic were also more satisfied with the health service that they received. They were also more compliant with following prescribed treatment routines and preventive care instructions.

To foster good relationships with patients, doctors need to be better, empathetic communicators.  Physicians who are poor communicators tend to use more diagnostic tests, recommend hospitalizations, and make  referrals compared to physicians who are good communicators.

When physicians know how to properly listen and talk to their patients, health care not only costs less but also becomes more effective. In a randomized population health study involving 500 patients, effective patient-centered care was correlated to fewer hospitalizations, less diagnostic tests, fewer referrals, and lower medical costs.

Do improved relationships due to services provided by more empathetic physicians actually lead to better population health? A study of 750 patients points to the affirmative. It was concluded that patients who had positive relationships with their doctors experienced not only better symptom relief and but overall better treatment and preventive care outcomes.

6 Responses

  • Gil Ronald

    Well, I think the problem with the health and medical care system is not only with “stubborn” patients but also with the rising cost of medical care, medicines and doctors’ fees. In less developed countries, the price of medical care often discourages people to seek medical attention at the early stage. As a result, they only get diagnosed when the case has worsened.

  • Donna

    I think doctors and nurses should treat their patient with sincerity and concern to improve patient’s condition. Sad to say, there doctors who are nice to those patients who have the capacity to pay the hospital bill, and forget those who are struggling to make ends meet!

  • Ross

    Physicians and medical persons should possess the character traits expected of them. One of which is the genuine concern to the patient’s condition. This can be of big help in the fast recovery of patients.

  • Dr. Steve

    As a doctor and prime provider of health services, it is expected that they should be the first to manifest concern on the patients who are in need of sympathy and concern. Unfortunately, we are having some problems on this count particularly for doctors who see themselves as above the general public.

  • M. Scott

    Richard Kimball has posed a huge change to the healthcare system by making doctors take financial risk so we can all benefit.

  • Gary

    Gil, I have to say I agree. The costs of healthcare is ridiculously high. It seems that Rick Kimball is proposing a huge change to the healthcare system by having doctor’s take on risk so we can all benefit – did you see hexl.com Kimball’s company.

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