Doctor Empathy a Factor in Diabetes Care

People with Type 2 diabetes may be healthier if they have a doctor who shows high levels of empathy.

Researchers studied 20,961 diabetes patients in Parma, Italy, and tested 242 of their primary care physicians for empathy with a well-validated questionnaire that measures the doctor’s understanding of the patient’s experiences, concerns and perspectives, as well as the ability to communicate this understanding to the patient.

In the study, published in the September issue of Academic Medicine, the researchers divided the doctors’ empathy scores into high, moderate and low. Then they tracked the occurrence of acute metabolic complications — hyperglycemia, radically low insulin production and diabetic coma — in the patients.

The doctors’ age or sex had no effect on the frequency of complications, nor did the patient’s sex, the type and location of the practice, or the length of time the patient had known the physician. But the rate of complications among the patients of the most empathetic doctors was about two-thirds that of patients whose doctors scored lower on the questionnaire.

Daniel Z. Louis, an author of the study and a research associate professor of family and community medicine at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, said compassion was a significant factor in good health care. “Physician empathy should be considered an important component of clinical competency,” he said.

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When I was first diagnosed, I thought of doctors as just a service provider. And the quality of my doctor was how technically competent they were, how much they were published and how their peers evaluated them. But after some harsh experiences, I found I was dead wrong. These days, I'd rather have a doctor who listens to me, understands my feelings and respects me as a member of the team. I'd much rather have a doctor who is empathic.

And I give a hearty welcome to our newest member "Diabetes News and Interest" a special member run behind the scenes by the admin staff at tuD and the DHF to keep us up to date on the latest news.

I agree with you Brian, so far as what's important in doctors. My response to the study is: No surprise at all and almost kind of obvious. But I'm fine with money spent on such a study because doctors read studies and if the clueless ones read that, maybe they'll get a clue! What would really help is if they talked more about compassion in med school.

Empathy doesn't mean they're not intelligent. It means they will deliver the same information in a caring and understanding manner, which makes it more likely that you will listen and respond to it.

When I was heavier, I'd look at the docs "glamour pics" online and find a bigger one. They'd still mention "you need to lose weight" but the one guy would say "just like I do" which made it less painful. I still do that and just try to find cool looking ones. I go for Indian Endos as I think they're inclined to be underselected as a "minority" and thus easier to get into quickly, reschedule appointments, etc. A pretty long while ago I went to the head of endocrinology at the big clinic/ hospital where we used to live and didn't engage with him at all, very brusque and not chatty. My GP is great, a lot of energy and humor and likes to chat and answer questions.

Isn't this the case with any illness? I mean, if a doctor isn't empathetic to some degree and isn't willing to explain things to the, it makes sense that the patient is then going to be less compliant with care, either because they don't understand the treatment or because they don't see the doctor as being empathetic or concerned. I can only speak from the perspective of T1 diabetes, but it's a really difficult condition to manage. It's literally a 24/7 job and there are times when it won't go well. I need a physician to be understanding to that, to be empathetic if my A1C isn't up to par because I've been sick or under a lot of stress. Empathy in those situations is a lot more helpful to me than shaming (which I've had some doctors do in the past).

Amen to that! Shaming is the worst possible approach.

I have a PCP who is fantastic. I have seen him for over 20 years. He is wonderful. The endos--new one is a machine: get me in and get me out.

But I am lucky to have a PCP who actually reads the reports other doctors send him and who is aware that it is really up to me to control my diabetes.

I have been a medical consumer for 39 years with db, and since my big health crisis two years ago (cancer, respiratory failure, kidney failure, cardiac arrest) have also seen about 30 subspecialists. If it's somebody that I'm most likely to have one appointment with, I generally on't give a hoot whether they're empathetic or not - just interpret my results in a competent manner.
But now I need to see an oncologist, pulmonologist, cardiologist and nephrologist every 3-6 month (all who say that I look amazing well and haven't a clue why I recovered) and two of them were arrogant and rushed and I dumped them right away and found suitable replacements. It makes a big difference.

It's hard enough doing tests every few hours, watching food, taking insulin etc, without some doctor or usually a nurse, giving out. I do much better when there is a little bit of understanding with regard to my D, but then again sometimes I do need a good kick up the ahem ! It took me years to cop on that at the end of the day this is my health and I must deal with it. It is good of course to have people around who can encourage you when things are getting on top of you. I find the D team at the hospital far better help than any doctor.

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