Introduction: Empathy is essential for high quality health care. Health care disparities may reflect a systemic lack of empathy for disadvantaged people; however, few data exist on disparities in patient experience of empathy during face-to-face health care encounters with individual clinicians. We systematically analyzed the literature to test if socioeconomic status (SES) and race/ethnicity disparities exist in patient-reported experience of clinician empathy.
Methods: Using a published protocol, we searched Ovid MEDLINE, PubMed, CINAHL, EMBASE, CENTRAL and PsychINFO for studies using the Consultation and Relational Empathy (CARE) Measure, which to date is the most commonly used and well-validated methodology for measuring clinician empathy from the patient perspective. We included studies containing CARE Measure data stratified by SES and/or race/ethnicity. We contacted authors to request stratified data, when necessary. We performed quantitative meta-analyses using random effects models to test for empathy differences by SES and race/ethnicity.
Results: Eighteen studies (n = 9,708 patients) were included. We found that, compared to patients whose SES was not low, low SES patients experienced lower empathy from clinicians (mean difference = -0.87 [95% confidence interval -1.72 to -0.02]). Compared to white patients, empathy scores were numerically lower for patients of multiple race/ethnicity groups (Black/African American, Asian, Native American, and all non-whites combined) but none of these differences reached statistical significance.
Conclusion: These data suggest an empathy gap may exist for patients with low SES. More research is needed to further test for SES and race/ethnicity disparities in clinician empathy and help promote health care equity.
Trial registration: Registration (PROSPERO): CRD42019142809.