Examining empathy in medical encounters: an observational study using the empathic communication coding system

Health Commun. 2005;18(2):123-40. doi: 10.1207/s15327027hc1802_2.


Educators, researchers, clinicians, and patients often advocate empathy in the physician-patient relationship. However, little research has systematically examined how patients present opportunities for physicians to communicate empathically and how physicians respond to such opportunities. The Empathic Communication Coding System was used to investigate empathic opportunity-response sequences during initial visits in a general internal medicine clinic. This study focuses on 100 visits during which patients created at least 1 explicit empathic opportunity. Overall, patients presented 249 empathic opportunities in these 100 visits; physicians most often responded by acknowledging, pursuing, or confirming the patient's statement. The mean length of empathic opportunity-response sequences was 25.8 sec; sequences tended to be longer in duration when the physician used a more empathic response. Positively valenced empathic opportunities generated a more empathic response than did negatively valenced empathic opportunities. However, there was no relation between the emotional intensity of empathic opportunities and the level of empathy in subsequent physician responses. Further research should examine patient preferences and outcomes associated with varying levels of empathic responses.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Communication*
  • Empathy*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Physician-Patient Relations*