Empathy, burn-out and the use of gut feeling: a cross-sectional survey of Danish general practitioners

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OBJECTIVE: Research has suggested that physicians' gut feelings are associated with parents' concerns for the well-being of their children. Gut feeling is particularly important in diagnosis of serious low-incidence diseases in primary care. Therefore, the aim of this study was to examine whether empathy, that is, the ability to understand what another person is experiencing, relates to general practitioners' (GPs) use of gut feelings. Since empathy is associated with burn-out, we also examined whether the hypothesised influence of empathy on gut feeling use is dependent on level of burn-out.

DESIGN: Cross-sectional questionnaire survey. Participants completed the Jefferson Scale of Physician Empathy and The Maslach Burnout Inventory.

SETTING: Primary care.

PARTICIPANTS: 588 active GPs in Central Denmark Region (response rate=70%).

PRIMARY OUTCOME MEASURES: Self-reported use of gut feelings in clinical practice.

RESULTS: GPs who scored in the highest quartile of the empathy scale had fourfold the odds of increased use of gut feelings compared with GPs in the lowest empathy quartile (OR 3.99, 95% CI 2.51 to 6.34) when adjusting for the influence of possible confounders. Burn-out was not statistically significantly associated with use of gut feelings (OR 1.29, 95% CI 0.90 to 1.83), and no significant interaction effects between empathy and burn-out were revealed.

CONCLUSIONS: Physician empathy, but not burn-out, was strongly associated with use of gut feelings in primary care. As preliminary results suggest that gut feelings have diagnostic value, these findings highlight the importance of incorporating empathy and interpersonal skills into medical training to increase sensitivity to patient concern and thereby increase the use and reliability of gut feeling.

Original languageEnglish
JournalBMJ Open
Pages (from-to)e020007
Publication statusPublished - 28 Feb 2018

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