Communicating with alexithymic and non-alexithymic patients: an experimental study of the effect of psychosocial communication and empathy on patient satisfaction

Psychother Psychosom. 2004 Mar-Apr;73(2):92-100. doi: 10.1159/000075540.


Background: Previous studies have shown that alexithymia is associated with a wide range of somatic and psychiatric conditions. The aim of this study was to investigate experimentally how psychosocial communication and empathic response from the physician affects satisfaction in alexithymic and non-alexithymic patients.

Method: Seven physicians and 65 female patients from a fibromyalgia patient association participated in the study. The Toronto Alexithymia Scale (TAS-20) was used to categorise patients as alexithymic or non-alexithymic. Patients also completed questionnaires regarding trait anxiety and satisfaction with their consultation. Physicians were instructed to differentiate their communication in terms of both psychosocial matters and empathic response. The content of the consultation was analysed using the Roter Interactional Analysis System.

Results: Regression analyses revealed that alexithymic patients were significantly more satisfied when they received a greater empathic response from the physician. Non-alexithymic patients, however, were more satisfied when the consultation was of longer duration. Psychosocial communication did not have any statistically significant effect on satisfaction in either of the two subgroups.

Conclusions: Verbalised empathic response from the physician may be crucial for the alexithymic patient's post-consultation satisfaction and may thereby become the basis for a solid treatment alliance. The validity of this hypothesis should be tested in different clinical settings and with different patient populations. Future research on alexithymic patients' response to psychosocial communication may benefit from determining to what extent this communication is concerned with general distress or more complex emotional phenomena.

Publication types

  • Clinical Trial
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Affective Symptoms / psychology*
  • Affective Symptoms / therapy*
  • Aged
  • Communication*
  • Empathy*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Middle Aged
  • Patient Satisfaction*
  • Patient-Centered Care
  • Physician-Patient Relations*
  • Referral and Consultation