Providing support to patients in emotional encounters: A new perspective on missed empathic opportunities

Ian Hsu, Somnath Saha, Phillip Todd Korthuis, Victoria Sharp, Jonathon Cohn, Richard D. Moore, Mary Catherine Beach

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

40 Scopus citations


Objective: Studies have repeatedly found that providers miss 70-90% of opportunities to express empathy. Our study sought to characterize provider responses to patients' emotions, with the overall goal of better understanding reasons for lack of empathic response. Methods: We analyzed 47 visits between patients and their providers. We defined empathic opportunities as instances where patients expressed a strong negative emotion. We then developed thematic categories to describe provider response. Results: We found a total of 29 empathic opportunities within 21 visits. Provider responses were categorized as ignore, dismiss, elicit information, problem-solve, or empathize. An empathic statement occurred at some point in the response sequence in 13/29 opportunities (45%). When problem-solving was the initial response, empathic statements rarely occurred in subsequent dialogue. Among the 16 instances with no empathic statements, providers engaged in problem-solving in 8 (50%). Conclusion: Similar to other studies, we found providers missed most opportunities to respond empathically to patient emotion. Yet contrary to common understanding, providers often addressed the problem underlying the emotion, especially when the problem involved logistical or biomedical issues, as opposed to grief. Practice implications: With enhanced awareness, providers may better recognize situations where they can offer empathy in addition to problem-solving.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)436-442
Number of pages7
JournalPatient Education and Counseling
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 2012


  • Emotion
  • Empathy
  • Patient-physician communication
  • Physician-patient relations

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Medicine(all)


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