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Hand (N Y). 2019 Sep 17:1558944719873395. doi: 10.1177/1558944719873395. [Epub ahead of print]

Missed Empathic Opportunities During Hand Surgery Office Visits.

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Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA, USA.
Tufts Medical Center, Tufts University School of Medicine, Boston, MA, USA.
The University of Texas at Austin, USA.
Medical University of Utrecht, The Netherlands.


Background: Empathy (conveyance of an understanding of a patient's situation, perspective, and feelings) deepens the therapeutic alliance and leads to better health outcomes. We studied the frequency and nature of empathic opportunities and physician responses in patients visiting a hand surgeon. We also sought patient characteristics associated with the number of patient-initiated-clues and missed opportunities by surgeons. Methods: For this prospective cohort study, we enrolled 83 new, adult patients visiting 1 of 3 hand surgeons during a period of 4 months. All visits were audio-recorded, and empathic opportunities (patient-initiated emotional or social clues) and physician responses were categorized using the model of Levenson et al. Before the visit, patients completed the Newest Vital Sign health literacy test; 3 Patient-Reported Outcomes Measurement Information System-based questionnaires: Upper-Extremity function, Pain Interference, and Depression questionnaires; and a sociodemographic survey. Results: Empathic opportunities were present in 70% of hand surgery office visits. Surgeons responded empathically to about half of the opportunities. Patients with limited health literacy and greater symptoms of depression (small correlation; r = -0.29) were less likely to receive a positive response. Response to an empathic opportunity did not affect visit duration. Conclusions: Hand surgeons often miss empathic opportunities. Future research might address the influence of training physicians to address empathic opportunities on trust, adherence, satisfaction, and outcomes.


empathic opportunities; empathy; hand surgery; limited health literacy; orthopedics


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