Dr. Tessie W. October. MD, MPH Critical Care Specialist Children’s National Health System

How Doctors Communicate Empathy Critical to Family-Physician Partnership

MedicalResearch.com Interview with:

Dr. Tessie W. October. MD, MPH Critical Care Specialist Children’s National Health System

Dr. October

Dr. Tessie W. October. MD, MPH
Critical Care Specialist
Children’s National Health System 

MedicalResearch.com: What is the background for this study? What are the main findings? 

Response: This is a qualitative study that examines the impact of empathetic statements made by doctors on the ensuing conversation with families of critically ill children. We know families are more satisfied when doctors show empathy, but until this study, we did not know how these empathetic statements are received by families. In this study we found that doctors frequently respond to a family’s emotions by responding with empathy, but how the doctor presented that empathetic statement mattered. When doctors made an empathetic statement, then paused to allow time for a family’s response, the family was 18 times more likely to share additional information about their fears, hopes or values. Conversely, when doctors buried the empathetic statement within medical talk or if a second doctor interrupted, the empathetic statement frequently went unheard by the family.

MedicalResearch.com: What should readers take away from your report?

Response: These results suggest how we convey empathy is as important as what we say. Deepening the conversation, by learning a family’s motivations, hopes and fears provides useful information for doctors when making medical recommendations to families.

Missing or ignoring a family’s emotions can have deleterious effects on the doctor-family partnership, leaving families feeling unheard. Simple strategies, such as using silence to allow for family input and limiting doctor-to-doctor talk within a meeting with families can improve the family’s ability to hear and respond to a doctor’s attempt to connect with them.  

MedicalResearch.com: What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this work?

Response: We know families want their doctors to show empathy and our work has added that how doctors show empathy also matters to the flow of the conversation. We do not yet know the relationship between how doctors show empathy and family outcomes, such as trust and satisfaction. 

MedicalResearch.com: Is there anything else you would like to add? 

Response: Communicating with families is one of the most common procedures performed in the intensive care unit, yet doctors rarely receive formal communication skills training. Families rely on doctors to convey important medical information empathetically. Adopting some of these skills into our practice can improve the communication experience for families. 


October TW, Dizon ZB, Arnold RM, Rosenberg AR. Characteristics of Physician Empathetic Statements During Pediatric Intensive Care Conferences With Family MembersA Qualitative StudyJAMA Network Open.2018;1(3):e180351. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2018.0351 

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Last Updated on July 11, 2018 by Marie Benz MD FAAD