Clinician empathy is associated with improved communication and clinical outcomes. We hypothesized that, when clinicians express empathy, families are more likely to deepen discussions, and that clinicians express less empathy in care conferences with language interpretation.
Prospective, mixed methods cohort study of English and interpreted audio-recorded transcripts of care conferences for pediatric patients with serious illness hospitalized at a single urban, quaternary medical institution between January 2018 and January 2021. Directed content analysis identified empathic opportunities, clinician empathetic statements or missed opportunities, and family responses. Clinician empathic statements were “buried” if immediately followed by more clinician medical talk. Descriptive analyses summarized demographics and codes. χ2 analyses summarized differences among language interpretation and family responses.
Twenty-nine patient–family dyads participated. Twenty-two (81%) family members were female. Eleven (39%) used language interpretation (8 Spanish, 2 Vietnamese, 1 Somali). Families created 210 empathic opportunities. Clinicians responded with unburied empathy 80 times (38%, no differences for English versus interpreted care conferences, P = .88). When clinicians buried empathy or missed empathic opportunities, families responded with alliance (agreement, gratitude, or emotional deepening) 14% and 15% of the time, respectively. When clinicians responded with unburied empathy, families responded with alliance 83% of the time (P < .01).
Our study suggests that clinician empathic expression does not differ when language interpretation is used in pediatric care conferences. Clinicians often miss opportunities to express empathy, or they bury it by medical talk. Although unburied empathy created opportunities for relationship-building and family-sharing, buried empathy negatively impacted these domains similarly to no empathic expression.