Studies have consistently shown that patients who feel empathy from their physicians are more satisfied with their care, trust their doctors more, and follow treatment recommendations more closely. These patients are less likely to file malpractice claims and end up healthier overall. For physicians, empathy has been linked to increased job satisfaction and fewer medical errors.
With all of these positive outcomes, it might seem that there could be no downside to physician empathy. However, some researchers have wondered if there could be a “warmth-competence tradeoff” in medical contexts, where patients might perceive empathic doctors as being less competent.
Researchers found that when doctors show too much empathy, patients may not trust them as much. So what’s the right balance? How can we be compassionate without undermining our credibility?
The warmth-competence tradeoff – how much empathy is too much?
It turns out that the warmth-competence tradeoff is more complicated than simply showing too much empathy.
In a study of oncologists, researchers found that patients perceived doctors who expressed concern and showed interest in their personal lives as both warmer and more competent. However, when these same doctors showed too much empathy (by crying or appearing overwhelmed), patients’ perceptions of competence decreased.
This suggests that there might be a “tipping point” when it comes to empathy, where showing too much emotion can undermine our credibility. But what is too much? The answer may depend on the context and the relationship between doctor and patient. In general, it seems that the most important thing is to be genuine in our empathy and to make sure that our emotions are appropriate for the situation.
When empathy is not the best response
Empathy is not always the best response to a patient’s situation. In some cases, it might be more helpful to provide emotional support without empathy. For example, patients who are experiencing grief or loss may find empathy to be overwhelming and prefer to talk with someone who can offer emotional support without trying to understand their feelings.
In other cases, empathy might not be appropriate because of the doctor-patient relationship. For example, a physician who is treating a patient for addiction might need to maintain a certain distance in order to be effective. In these cases, it’s important, to be honest with patients about why we’re not being empathic and to offer alternative forms of support.
Empathy is a vital part of the physician-patient relationship, but it’s important to use our empathy wisely. By being aware of the potential downsides of empathy and using it appropriately, we can maintain our credibility and effectiveness as physicians.