Empathy Mandate On Its Way


A recent study described here it the American Medical News is trying to show that doctors can learn empathy from a CD-ROM program. Personally, I this is just another exaggeration for a future product sale. The study examined how often oncologists empathize when patients relay feelings such as fear, sadness or distress. About 50 oncologists at two academic medical centers heard a one-hour lecture on communication skills.  They then had over 260 of their visits with patients recorded on audio and analyzed. Half of the oncologists also took a one-hour, computer-based tutorial that incorporated audio recordings of earlier patient visits and pointed out times when physicians could have done a better job of empathizing with their patients. The physicians who took the computer tutorial, provided on CD-ROM, were 30% likelier to make empathic statements during their visits with patients than those who didn’t take the tutorial.

Does that prove that the computer can teach teach us to be more human? No. It just shows that we all could use feedback from any source, even from ourselves. And since we physicians all have big egos and don’t trust the intentions of overbearing administrators, getting feedback and some learning via the CD-ROM is one good method to being a better doctor. That being said, the article goes on to say that “the financial stakes related to improving communication have risen, with more than 60% of health care organizations using patient satisfaction scores to determine physician bonus pay”. Now why did they have to go ahead and ruin it by bringing in the P4P crap? Now you are going to see this study being presented at some big annual administrator meeting and they will come back to their hospitals and demand all doctors go through this same CD-ROM experience. My point is not that we all can’t use some feedback and learn more empathy but that it leads to another “hoop” that doctors are made to jump through. This in turn leads to contempt and not empathy. As De Niro said as Jake LaMotta in the Raging Bull, “Don’t burn the steak! It defeats its own purpose!”.

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