Clinical empathy is defined as “a cognitive attribute that involves an ability to understand the patient’s inner experiences and perspective and a capability to communicate this understanding.”

If this seems like something you would like to have in your physician or other health care provider, it is for a good reason. There have been a number of studies that show that besides the sense of connection you will have with someone showing empathy, there are measurable improvements in clinical outcomes.

1. In a study of over 700 clinical encounters with patients who had the common cold, those patients who gave their clinician a perfect empathy score reported that their colds were less severe and lasted fewer days than patients who gave their clinicians less-than-perfect empathy scores. In addition to their self-report of feeling better, these patients also showed a higher change in immune markers

2. In a study of 710 cancer patients in Germany, physician empathy was positively associated with improvement in patient-reported outcomes of depression and quality of life.

3. In a study of over 20,000 patients with diabetes mellitus, researchers found that patients of physicians with high empathy scores (compared with patients of physicians with moderate and low empathy scores) had a significantly lower rate of acute metabolic complications.

4. In a study of almost 900 diabetic patients, researchers found that patients of physicians with high empathy scores (compared to physicians with low empathy scores) were significantly more likely to have good control of hemoglobin A1c and good LDL-C control.

5. In a study of 185 patients being treated with cognitive-behavioral therapy, therapeutic empathy had a “moderate-to-large causal effect on recovery from depression.”
If you want to see the actual studies on these, link to

However, did you know that measures of empathy actually decrease during medical school? In fact, women students who come into medical school with on average higher empathy skills than men, similarly lose their empathy skills becoming as low as the male students by the end of their fourth year. In other words, to make a woman more like a man (at least as far as empathy goes), send her to medical school!

What are the causes of these unintended consequences of medical education? Faculty encourage and try to role model for students empathic, caring human interactions. But competition for high grades is based more heavily on multiple-choice tests than on clinical skills. Time pressures for studying squeezes those things that relieve stress and build resilience in life, like relationships, healthy cooking and eating, relaxation, and exercise. Financial concerns can be an issue as student loans rack up. Being exposed time and again to profound human suffering can leave even the best health professionals emotionally depleted and less sensitive to others. An emotional callus may grow over our empathic pathways.

The Physician Healer Track at UTMB’s School of Medicine is specifically designed as an antidote to this these problems. I will describe some of the strategies employed in that program in next week’s column.

Dr. Victor S. Sierpina is the WD and Laura Nell Nicholson Family Professor of Integrative Medicine and Professor of Family Medicine at UTMB.