Empathy: what does it mean for GPs? A qualitative study

Fam Pract. 2015 Feb;32(1):94-100. doi: 10.1093/fampra/cmu080. Epub 2014 Nov 30.


Background: Research has highlighted empathy as an important and effective factor in patient-physician communication. GPs have extensive practical experience with empathy. However, little is known about the personal views of GPs regarding the meaning and application of empathy in daily practice.

Objectives: To explore GP's experiences and the application of empathy in daily practice and to investigate the practical use of empathy. Facts such as preconditions, barriers and facilitating possibilities are described.

Methods: Qualitative interview study; 30 in-depth interviews were performed between June 2012 and January 2013 with a heterogeneous sample of Dutch GPs. Interviews were recorded and transcribed verbatim; content analysis was performed with the help of ATLAS-ti.

Results: Empathy was seen as an important quality-increasing element during the patient-GP consultation. The application of non-verbal and verbal techniques was described. Attention to cues and references to previous consults were reported separately. Required preconditions were: being physically and mentally fit, feeling no time pressure and having an efficient practice organization. Not feeling connected to the patient and strict medical guidelines and protocols were identified as obstacles. A key consideration was the positive contribution of empathy to job satisfaction.

Conclusions: The opinions of GPs in this research can be considered as supplementing and strengthening the findings of previous researches. The GPs in this study discussed, in particular, ideas important to the facilitation of empathy. These included: longer consultations, smaller practices, efficient telephonic triage by practice assistants, using intervision to help reflect on their work and drawing financiers' attention to the effectiveness of empathy.

Keywords: Application; empathy; facilitation; general practice; job satisfaction; qualitative research..

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Attitude of Health Personnel*
  • Empathy*
  • Female
  • General Practice / organization & administration
  • General Practitioners / psychology*
  • Humans
  • Interviews as Topic
  • Job Satisfaction
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Netherlands
  • Physician-Patient Relations*
  • Qualitative Research