Clinical empathy as perceived by patients with chronic illness in Canada

Shira Gertsman BSc, Ioana Cezara Ene BHSc, Sasha Palmert BSc, Amy Liu BHSc, Mallika Makkar BSc, Ian Shao BHSc, Johanna Shapiro PhD, Connie Williams MD PhD

Background: Although clinical empathy — the ability of a physician to understand a patient’s illness experience, communicate this understanding and act collaboratively to create a treatment plan — provides substantial benefits to both physicians and patients, medical students typically experience a decline in empathy during training. The primary objective of this study was to generate a model of clinical empathy grounded in the perspectives of people with chronic illness living in Canada, to promote empathy-focused curricular development in Canadian medical education.

Methods: We conducted a qualitative focus group study using a constructivist grounded theory approach. We recruited adults (age ≥ 18 yr) with chronic illness who had recently seen a physician in Canada from virtual support groups. Six semistructured virtual focus groups with 3–5 participants each were scheduled between June and September 2021. We coded the transcripts using the constant comparative method, allowing for the construction of an overarching theory.

Results: Twenty patients (17 women and 3 men) participated in the focus groups; 1 group had 2 participants because 1 participant failed to appear. The majority of participants (14 [70%]) had at least a college degree. The mean rating for overall satisfaction with the Canadian health care system was 5.4/10.0 (median 5.0). The emergent theory showed that the perceived presence of physician empathy engendered positive internal processing by patients, leading to increased health care efficacy and enhanced mental health outcomes. Negative patient processing in response to the perceived absence of empathy led to reduced quality of health care delivery (e.g., ineffective referrals and more appointments), increased use of health care resources, disruptions in patients’ personal lives, and negative physical and mental health outcomes.

Interpretation: Clinical empathy can have life-altering impacts on patients, and its absence may increase resource use. As empathy involves understanding patients’ lived experiences, any valid intervention to improve clinical empathy must be informed by patient perspectives.

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