Numbers. Data. Trends. Technology. Both the medical and diabetes worlds are full of technical pieces like these.
As an added layer, there is a common misconception that diabetes, or complications of diabetes, are entirely someone’s fault (disregarding one’s resources or support to reduce these risks). It can feel, and often rightly so, that the world of diabetes care is full of blame, shame, and “big brother”-like approaches.
However, not all healthcare providers (HCP) are like that. There are some who deliver a warmer approach, the human touch and connection. They deliver empathy.
Empathy is being able to “see” an event or scenario from someone else’s perspective. In the world of diabetes, that means your HCP sees past the diabetes numbers and imagines what it must be like for you—-managing diabetes in your everyday environment.
It may feel good to have a provider like this, but the real question is, does it matter? Does empathy impact your health outcomes beyond the “feel good” effect?
The research points towards YESSS!
In a 2004 study, researchers set out to determine if a HCP’s empathy affected their patients’ satisfaction in care and their patients’ ability to stick to self-care routines. The study showed empathy and partnerships between a HCP and patient were more important than the HCP’s medical expertise.1
Just like the study above, more and more research is showing the positive effect of HCP empathy on one’s health. In a review of multiple research studies on the impact of empathy in medical care, researchers stated that empathy was “of unquestionable importance.” Faster recoveries from a cold and lower levels of anxiety and distress were just a few of the health outcomes linked to empathetic HCPs.
However, colds and anxiety are one thing—-what about diabetes? Does having an empathetic HCP improve your diabetes health?
Again, the research points towards YESSS!
Studies focusing on HCP empathy and diabetes show very similar results to general health studies—- people with diabetes have better health outcomes when empathy is part of their medical care. For, example, in one study, empathy was linked to healthier A1c and LDL (unhealthy cholesterol) levels. Another showed HCP empathy impacted hospitalization rates for conditions like diabetes-ketoacidosis (DKA) or hyperglycemic hyperosmolar syndrome (HHS)—in a nutshell, if you had a more empathetic HCP, your risk of DKA or HHS was lower.
One of the most jaw-dropping studies showing the impact of empathy on diabetes health was recently published in 2019. The study was created to see if HCP empathy was connected to heart-related health problems in those newly diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. Within one year of diagnosis, participants were asked to rank their HCP’s level of empathy. Approximately, ten years later, the researchers looked at the heart-health of participants.
The findings were quite shocking—–participants with highly empathetic HCPs had a 40-50% lower chance of dying from a heart related event than those with a less empathetic HCP (over that 10-year period). Forty to fifty percent! Researchers from this study concluded practicing empathy was “significant” and could produce better health outcomes than just focusing on diabetes itself.
Empathy is too often viewed as a luxury– a “nice to have” in your HCP relationship, rather than a necessity. However, these studies and their researchers, form a strong case that the opposite is true. Perhaps, just like other shifts we’ve seen in diabetes care over the years (urine glucose monitoring to blood glucose monitoring, and so on), the shift towards more empathetic care will become the norm.
Unfortunately, it’s just not the norm yet. So, you’ll have to hunt for it. The good news is you can find it. There are some amazing, empathetic HCPs out there, with an expertise in diabetes, who want to partner with you in your diabetes journey. Find them. Use them. It’s worth the time and energy, and it just may save your life.
- Kim, S. S., Kaplowitz, S., & Johnston, M. V. (2004). The Effects of Physician Empathy on Patient Satisfaction and Compliance. Evaluation & the Health Professions, 27(3), 237–251.
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