The impact of oncologists’ use of empathy on information recall of patients with advanced breast cancer and the mediating role of anxiety
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Objective: Recent studies have shown cancer patients’ recall of medical information to be poor. Higher emotional stress during consultations in advanced cancer care may play a role in patients’ impaired recall of medical information. Experimental studies found that when oncologists use more affective communication skills, participants’ emotional distress decreased and recall of medical information increased. It is unclear whether the relationship between empathy and recall can be explained via a decrease of emotional distress and if these experimental results also occur in clinical care. Against this background, the aim of this study in clinical care is twofold: to i) determine the relationship between oncologists’ use of empathy and patients’ information recall and ii) determine whether this relationship between empathy and recall is mediated by a decrease in patients’ anxiety. Method: Forty-five consultations between oncologists and female patients with advanced breast cancer were audiotaped. Patients completed questionnaires to assess their pre- and postconsultation anxiety level and what they remembered from the consultation. Patients’ recall was determined through a self-created coding scheme and oncologists’ use of empathy with a single Visual Analogue Scale (VAS) (range: 0-100). Results: Empathy significantly increased patients’ total recall (B=0.70, p=.041), especially for recall of treatment aims and positive effects (B=0.88, p=.028). The mediating role of anxiety could not be established in this study (B=0.05, p= .564). Conclusion: Findings illustrate the powerful impact of oncologists’ communication during a consultation with seriously ill patients. Oncologists can influence patients’ recall of medical information by using empathy. These results underly the need for essential physician communication training which provides accessible handles so that doctors can easily apply empathy in clinical practice.