Lack of Empathy or Scared of Mortality?

An article in today's Boston Globe caught my eye....a small study conducted at the Veterans Affairs Hospital in Houston assessed verbal interactions between patients diagnosed with lung cancer and their physicians.

Here is an example of one of the verbal interactions:

During an appointment with his doctor, a man diagnosed with lung cancer sounded dispirited when talking about what cigarettes had done to him:

"I was always told I had a good strong heart and lungs. But the lungs couldn't withstand all those cigarettes...asbestos and pollution and secondhand smoke and all those other things, I guess", the man told his doctor.

"Do you have glaucoma?", the doctor responded, abruptly changing the subject."

In the study analysis researchers identified 384 times during these interactions when patients mentioned concerns, worries and emotions concerning their mortality and deadly diagnosis...their doctors responded with empathy only 39 times or approximately 10% of the time! very sad for both the patients and the physicians, that they each missed an opportunity to make a human connection. However, when I thought about the study, was it really a lack of empathy on the physicians' part or were the physicians simply scared and unsure of what to do and say to a patient with a terminal diagnosis? Perhaps acknowledging and honoring the human emotions that exist for both the patient and the health care practitioner is the first step to providing competent and compassionate health care.

What do you think?