Perception of empathy in the therapeutic encounter: effects on the common cold

Patient Educ Couns. 2011 Dec;85(3):390-7. doi: 10.1016/j.pec.2011.01.009. Epub 2011 Feb 5.


Objective: To evaluate the effects of patient-practitioner interaction on the severity and duration of the common cold.

Methods: We conducted a randomized controlled trial of 719 patients with new cold onset. Participants were randomized to three groups: no patient-practitioner interaction, "standard" interaction or an "enhanced" interaction. Cold severity was assessed twice daily. Patients randomized to practitioner visits used the Consultation and Relational Empathy (CARE) measure to rate clinician empathy. Interleukin-8 (IL-8) and neutrophil counts were obtained from nasal wash at baseline and 48 h later.

Results: Patients' perceptions of the clinical encounter were associated with reduced cold severity and duration. Encounters rated perfect on the CARE score had reduced severity (perfect: 223, sub-perfect: 271, p=0.04) and duration (perfect: 5.89 days, sub-perfect: 7.00 days, p=0.003). CARE scores were also associated with a more significant change in IL-8 (perfect: mean IL-8 change 1586, sub-perfect: 72, p=0.02) and neutrophil count (perfect: 49, sub-perfect: 12, p=0.09).

Conclusions: When patients perceive clinicians as empathetic, rating them perfect on the CARE tool, the severity, duration and objective measures (IL-8 and neutrophils) of the common cold significantly change.

Practice implications: This study helps us to understand the importance of the perception of empathy in a therapeutic encounter.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Attitude of Health Personnel
  • Common Cold / psychology*
  • Common Cold / therapy*
  • Empathy*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Interleukin-8 / analysis
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Nasal Lavage Fluid
  • Neutrophils / immunology
  • Patient Satisfaction*
  • Perception
  • Physician-Patient Relations*
  • Process Assessment, Health Care
  • Quality of Life
  • Severity of Illness Index
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Time Factors
  • Treatment Outcome
  • Wisconsin
  • Young Adult


  • Interleukin-8