Effectiveness of empathy in general practice: a systematic review

Br J Gen Pract. 2013 Jan;63(606):e76-84. doi: 10.3399/bjgp13X660814.


Background: Empathy as a characteristic of patient-physician communication in both general practice and clinical care is considered to be the backbone of the patient-physician relationship. Although the value of empathy is seldom debated, its effectiveness is little discussed in general practice. This literature review explores the effectiveness of empathy in general practice. Effects that are discussed are: patient satisfaction and adherence, feelings of anxiety and stress, patient enablement, diagnostics related to information exchange, and clinical outcomes.

Aim: To review the existing literature concerning all studies published in the last 15 years on the effectiveness of physician empathy in general practice.

Design and setting: Systematic literature search.

Method: Searches of PubMed, EMBASE, and PsychINFO databases were undertaken, with citation searches of key studies and papers. Original studies published in English between July 1995 and July 2011, containing empirical data about patient experience of GPs' empathy, were included. Qualitative assessment was applied using Giacomini and Cook's criteria.

Results: After screening the literature using specified selection criteria, 964 original studies were selected; of these, seven were included in this review after applying quality assessment. There is a good correlation between physician empathy and patient satisfaction and a direct positive relationship with strengthening patient enablement. Empathy lowers patients' anxiety and distress and delivers significantly better clinical outcomes.

Conclusion: Although only a small number of studies could be used in this search, the general outcome seems to be that empathy in the patient-physician communication in general practice is of unquestionable importance.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Anxiety / etiology
  • Anxiety / prevention & control*
  • Communication
  • Empathy*
  • Female
  • General Practice*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Medication Adherence / psychology*
  • Netherlands / epidemiology
  • Outcome Assessment, Health Care
  • Patient Satisfaction
  • Physician-Patient Relations*
  • Stress, Psychological / etiology
  • Stress, Psychological / prevention & control*