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Empathy in doctor–patient palliative care consultations: a conversation-analytic approach

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posted on 04.12.2017, 09:51 authored by Joseph Ford
This thesis analyses doctors empathising with patients in palliative care interactions. Historically, palliative care has treated not only patients physical pain but their emotional pain, as well. Although the importance of empathy (defined for the purposes of this thesis as The doctor s expressed understanding of the patient s emotional experience ) has been emphasised in this environment, however, there has been no prior research showing how palliative care doctors actually empathise with their patients in practice. Drawing upon 37 recordings of doctor-patient consultations collected in a UK hospice, this thesis addresses this omission by using conversation analysis (CA) to analyse several facets of empathy in this environment. The analysis begins in chapter four by considering the ways in which doctors can empathise with patients. It shows how doctors can empathise semantically, either by reworking what the patient has themselves said or by showing understanding on a normative basis. It also considers non-semantic ways of displaying empathy (e.g. response cries), showing how these are fundamentally different to the semantic type of empathic display. Overall, this chapter shows that empathy is not restricted to particular formats but, rather, is dependent upon the content of the doctor s turn. The analysis then moves on consider the wider context of doctors empathic responses. Chapter five, first of all, analyses cases where patients emotions become the topic of the interaction, either because the doctor asks about them directly or because the patient raises an emotionally-implicative topic. The emphasis here is on how palliative care doctors can talk to patients about, and empathise with, their emotions without necessarily having to do anything about those emotions. Chapter six then focuses on cases where patients emotions are discussed alongside the more task-driven aspects of the consultation, either because the patient s physical condition has had an emotional impact on them or because their presenting problem is inherently emotional. In contrast to chapter five, then, the source of the patient s emotions here can be treated by the doctor without the emotions being topicalised. The final two chapters of the analysis focus on doctors empathising with patients not in response to something that the patient has said but in the service of some task. Chapter seven shows how doctors can empathically bridge the gap between their medical and the patient s experiential perspectives at moments where it becomes clear that there is a disparity between the two. These include moments where the patient expresses expectations that go beyond what can realistically be provided, moments where the patient might take offence at the doctor s advice and moments where the doctor must reassure patients about their symptoms without seeming to criticise their emotional responses to those symptoms. Chapter eight, meanwhile, shows how doctors can empathically demonstrate that their practice is being driven by a due consideration of the patient s feelings. Specifically, it shows how doctors can draw upon patients feelings in helping them come to a decision about a treatment, cite those feelings when accounting for a treatment that they have recommended and frame a difficult topic as an outgrowth of sentiments that the patient has already expressed. In conclusion, this thesis shows how empathy is not clearly demarcated in palliative care. While there are cases where patients emotions are discussed and empathised with for the sake of discussing and empathising with them, more commonly, empathy and emotion are interwoven alongside and into the task-driven aspects of consultations. This thesis thus shows the interactional manifestation of palliative care s underlying philosophy, with patients emotional pain addressed alongside their physical pain in an integrated, holistic way.


Loughborough University (doctoral studentship). Health Foundation (data).



  • Social Sciences


  • Communication, Media, Social and Policy Studies


© Joseph Ford

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A Doctoral Thesis. Submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the award of Doctor of Philosophy of Loughborough University.