Empathy in general practice consultations: a qualitative analysis

Epidemiol Psichiatr Soc. 2005 Jul-Sep;14(3):163-9. doi: 10.1017/s1121189x00006412.


Aims: Empathy is an important basis of all provider-patient interaction, including general practice. Little has been known about the details of how general practitioners express empathy to their patients. In the present study, it was a main aim to carry out a detailed qualitative study of actual sequences through which empathy was achieved, by focusing on the form, function, and categorisation of such sequences.

Methods: The study drew on the qualitative method of conversation analysis. Transcriptions of 77 British general-practitioner-patient interactions were analysed in detail in order to identify and characterise sequences in which empathy was achieved.

Results: Four types of empathy were identified, described, and analysed: cognitive empathy, affective empathy, sharing empathy, and nurturant empathy. Although sequences involving empathy typically were brief and occurred relatively rarely, the analyses demonstrated that the sequences often concerned matters of great importance to the interactants.

Conclusions: The study underlined the need to focus also on phenomena that occur relatively rarely in consultations. For this purpose, the method of conversation analysis was a useful tool.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Attitude of Health Personnel
  • Communication
  • Empathy*
  • Family Practice*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Physician-Patient Relations*
  • Practice Patterns, Physicians'
  • Referral and Consultation*