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Doctor Empathy Linked With Better Patient Outcomes: Study

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Your doctor may be smart -- but is he or she empathetic?

It could make a difference on your health, new research suggests.

The new study, published in the journal Academic Medicine, shows that diabetes patients of doctors who scored lower on a test of empathy were more likely to have a acute metabolic complications associated with their condition, than patients of doctors who scored higher on the test.

The findings show even more "empirical support for the beneficial effects of empathy in patient care," study researcher Mohammadreza Hojat, Ph.D., a research professor in the department of psychiatry and human behavior at Thomas Jefferson University, said in a statement.

The large new study, which was also conducted with Italian researchers, is a follow-up to a study last year also showing how doctor empathy affected patients. The new study included 20,961 people with diabetes in Italy, and their 242 primary care doctors.

The researchers had the doctors take an empathy test called the Jefferson Scale of Empathy. They also examined the patients' outcomes in terms of how many of them were hospitalized and had acute metabolic complications -- which include things like coma, hyperosmolar state (a dangerous condition when the blood sugar levels are much too high), and diabetic ketoacides (a dangerous condition where the body has no insulin to use).

In 2009, there were 123 hospitalizations due to these acute metabolic complications, the researchers found. There was indeed a link between the doctors' empathy levels and the rate of hospitalization -- 42 patients of doctors who scored lower on the test were hospitalized, compared with 29 patients of doctors who scored higher on the test.

Because the research was conducted in Italy, it actually further strengthens the link between doctor empathy and patient outcomes, the researchers said.

The "study was conducted in a health care system in which all residents enroll with a primary care physician resulting in a better defined relationship between the patients and their primary care physicians than what exists in the United States," study researcher Daniel Z. Louis, also of Jefferson Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University, said in the statement.

Recently, a study from University of Rochester Medical Center showed that practicing mindfulness meditation could help doctors to listen better to their patients and not be as judgmental at both home and work.

The findings provide evidence that "our health care delivery systems must implement systematic change at the practice level to create an environment that supports mindful practice, encourages transparent and clear communication among clinicians, staff, patients, and families, and reduces professional isolation," the researchers said in a statement.

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