Wednesday, September 24, 2008
A recent study on physician empathy came out and the media had a field day with it. Rita Rubin’s title in the USA Today was “Study: Physicians show little empathy”. Will Dunham in the Boston Globe entitled his piece as “US doctors offer patients scant empathy in study”. The actual title in the Archives of Internal Medicine was “Missed Opportunities for Interval Empathy in Lung Cancer Communication”. Can you see the problem already? This is just another example of the media jumping at the chance to doctor bash.
Though the study was a great way to get publicity, one has to look at the details to see if it merits that attention. This one doesn’t. All the authors did was look at 20 transcripts from recordings between oncologists and/or thoracic surgeons and patients with lung cancer. Twenty! All these encounters occurred at a Veteran’s Affair hospital. Anyone reading this knows the history behind these institutions and though they have gotten better over the years, one has to wonder why these authors picked this hospital to examine physician empathy. Anyway, now for some statistical gobbly-gook. Here was their method of proving doctors have little empathy:
Using qualitative analysis, we collaboratively developed themes and subthemes until saturation. Then, each transcript was coded, using grounded theory methods, until consensus was achieved, counting and sequentially analyzing patient empathic opportunities and physician responses.
Does anybody know what that means? Well, neither do I. What they state they found was that out of 384 opportunities to be empathetic, doctors only responded appropriately 39 times. This ridiculous study is flying around the airwaves because it is perfect fit for the media. Unfortunately, they legitimize a very small study. Here are some questions maybe media should ask.
-Could the doctors at that veteran’s hospital be a lot older and burned out?
-Are specialists (oncologists, thoracic surgeons) indicative of all doctors?
-Could lung cancer patients, who caused their own disease, be different than other cancer patients who didn’t cause their own disease (i.e. breast cancer patients) which may make doctors treat them a little differently?
I hate doctor bashing and though this study was small and ridiculous, I am more bothered by the media who jumped all over it. Even the titles from the USA Today and Boston Globe articles were exaggerated and this just makes doctors look bad. It is nothing more than perpetuating a stereotype that they think their readers want to buy into. Personally, I am sick of it. Anyone want to empathize with me?