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Empathy is the best medicine, says new study


Patients of empathetic physicians have better outcomes and fewer complications, according to a new study conducted by a team at Thomas Jefferson University and researchers in Italy.

The study, a larger-scale version of one conducted in 2011, found that diabetic patients of more empathetic physicians suffered fewer acute metabolic complications.

Compared to the 2011 study, which measured physician empathy by the hemoglobin A1c test and cholesterol levels, the new study measured how physician empathy impacted acute metabolic complications because they require hospitalization and can develop quickly. Additionally, the prevention of acute metabolic complications is more likely to be influenced by primary care physicians, according to researchers at Thomas Jefferson University.

In 2009, a total of 123 patients were hospitalized with acute metabolic complications. Physicians who scored higher in empathy had a lower rate of patients with the condition—29 out of 7,224 patients of more empathetic physicians were admitted compared to 42 out of 6,434 patients of physicians with lower empathy scores.

“This new, large-scale research study has confirmed that empathic physician-patient relationships is an important factor in positive outcomes,” says Mohammadreza Hojat, PhD, research professor, Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior; and director, Jefferson Longitudinal Study of Medical Education in the Center for Research in Medical Education and Health Care at Jefferson Medical College. “It takes our hypothesis one step further. Compared to our initial study, it has a much larger number of patients and physicians, a different tangible clinical outcome, hospital admission for acute metabolic complications, and a cross-cultural feature that will allow for generalization of the findings in different cultures, and different health care systems.”

Empathy levels were evaluated using the Jefferson Scale of Empathy, developed in 2001 as a way to measure empathy in the context of medical education and patient care.

The study evaluated the outcomes of 20,961 diabetic patients of nearly 250 primary care physicians in Italy and was published in the September 2012 issue of Academic Medicine.

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