How many times have you sat with your oncologist and felt frustrated by the lack of any emotional response from them? When we deal with cancer much of our issues are laden with emotional concerns. We often look to our doctors for both technical medical help and support as well as emotional help and support.

According to a report published in the Dec. 20, 2007 issue of the Journal of Clinical Oncology, L. Pollak, an associate professor at Duke University Medical Center’s Community and Family Medicine Department, in Durham, N.C. said most cancer specialists do not respond to the emotional concerns of their patients. No surprise to us veterans.

This is particularly sad given that there are research findings that the quality of life of cancer patients might be significantly improved if doctors were able to recognize and address patients’ emotional concerns as they battle the disease.

In this study the responses of oncologists were evaluated for empathy. Not surprising most doctors failed to respond with empathy! The older the doctor, the less empathetic the physician was able to be.

“Oncologists clearly care about their patients,” said Pollak. “They wouldn’t go into oncology if they didn’t. But oncology is a really challenging field, and, in general, oncologists have not been trained in how to communicate with patients. So, it’s a pretty difficult situation for them.”

Empathy and listening skills can be taught. We need to continue the high level of technical skill development we already provide to our physicians, but we need to add to the curriculum of all medical students and residents basic education in listening skills and empathy.

Joel T Nowak MA, MSW