Johanna Shapiro, PhD
Background/Objectives. Despite extensive evidence of physician frustration with “difficult” patients, we have no comparable information about physician empathy. This study investigated whether, in a population of experienced family physicians, there would be measurable differences between difficult and typical patients in terms of physician self-reported frustration and empathy. Methods. The study used a modified repeated measures survey design of 175 family physicians who were asked to describe emotional reactions to difficult and typical patients. Results. Frustration and empathy were negatively correlated. Physicians rated difficult patients as significantly more frustrating than typical patients, but there was no significant difference in physicians’ self-perceived empathy. Predictors of difficult versus typical patients included presence of somatization, psychological disorder, and less time in physician’s practice. Conclusion. While family physicians easily identify frustration toward difficult patients, overall their empathy toward difficult patients does not differ significantly from that experienced toward typical patients.