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The Power of Empathy

When my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, I started to worry.  The diagnosis itself was scary enough.  But I must admit, I was also not looking forward to dealing with the healthcare bureaucracy–because, as anyone who has had to deal with a serious health issue knows, one bad apple in that mix can and will spoil the whole bunch. 

Luckily, all of my mother’s physicians and nurses were incredible.  They were kind, smart, open and very, very empathetic.  And, I believe, that it made a huge difference to her prognosis and treatment outcomes.

A new study published in the September 2012 issue of Academic Medicine provides compelling evidence to back up my belief.

Researchers from Thomas Jefferson University followed nearly 21,000 diabetic patients as they interacted with 242 physicians in Italy.  The researchers tested each of the physicians with the Jefferson Scale of Empathy, a clinical tool designed specifically to measure empathy in a medical care context, including Likert-scale questions that quantify a physician’s understanding of a patient’s concerns and pain and suffering as well as that physician’s intention to help. 

These physicians’ patients were also tested–but on their diabetes outcomes.  The researchers looked at their hemoglobin A1c test and cholesterol levels.  They also took a look at acute medical complications of the disease which can include diabetic coma and hospitalizations.

The group found a direct correlation between a high physician empathy score on the Jefferson Scale and better disease outcomes in patients.  Since Italy is a socialized healthcare state, there were no confounds regarding insurance coverage or lack of access to adequate medical care.

The study authors argue that empathy should be added to medical school education.  And I’m with them.  But I think there is something more interesting underlying these results.

In the past decade, there has been great neurobiological exploration of the powers of belief and human contact on molecular and cellular processes–as well as their impact on disease states.  And while there is still much to discover in that space, there’s no question that our personal interactions with others matter.  Really matter.  Not just socially but biologically.

What do you think?

Photo Credit: Paul Maguire/


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