Objective: The aim of the present cross-sectional study was to explore patient- and physician-specific determinants of physician empathy (PE) and to analyse the influence of PE on patient-reported long-term outcomes in German cancer patients.
Methods: A postal survey was administered to 710 cancer patients, who had been inpatients at the University Hospital Cologne (response rate 49.5%). PE was measured with the German translation of the consultation and relational empathy (CARE) measure, and patient-reported long-term outcomes were assessed using the major (ICD-10) depression inventory (MDI) and the EORTC quality of life (Qol) questionnaire QLQ-C30. Hypotheses were tested by structural equation modelling.
Results: PE had (a) a moderate indirect effect on "depression" and a smaller indirect effect on "socio-emotional-cognitive Qol" by affecting "desire for more information from the physician regarding findings and treatment options" and (b) a moderate indirect effect on "socio-emotional-cognitive Qol" and a smaller effect on "depression" via "desire for more information about health promotion". The determinant with the greatest importance was "patient-perceived general busyness of hospital staff": it had a strong negative influence on PE, indirectly influencing "desire for more information from the physician regarding findings and treatment options" and also patients' "depression".
Conclusion: PE seems to be an important pre-requisite for information giving by physicians and through this pathway having a preventive effect on depression and improving Qol. Conversely, physicians' stress negatively influences these relationships.
Practice implications: The research findings suggest that reducing physicians' stress at the organizational and individual may be required to enhance patient-physician communication. Empathy, as an outcome-relevant professional competence needs to be assessed and developed more intensively in medical students and physicians.