Quality of care is increasingly assessed and incentivized using measures of patient-reported outcomes and experience. Little is known about the association between measurement of clinician communication strategies by trained observers and patient-rated clinician empathy (a patient-reported experience measure). An effective independent measure could help identify and promote clinician behaviors associated with good patient experience of care.
(1) What is the association between independently assessed clinician communication effectiveness and patient-rated clinician empathy? (2) Which factors are associated with independently assessed communication effectiveness?
One hundred twenty adult (age > 17 years) new or returning patients seeking musculoskeletal specialty care between September 2019 and January 2020 consented to video recording of their visit followed by completion of questionnaires rating their perceptions of providers’ empathy levels in this prospective study. Patients who had operative treatment and those who had nonoperative treatment were included in our sample. We pooled new and returning patients because our prior studies of patient experience found no influence of visit type and because we were interested in the potential influences of familiarity with the clinician on empathy ratings. We did not record the number of patients or baseline data of patients who were approached, but most patients (> 80%) were willing to participate. For 7% (eight of 120 patients), there was a malfunction with the video equipment or files were misplaced, leaving 112 records available for analysis. Patients were seen by one provider among four attending physicians, four residents, or four physician assistants or nurse practitioners. The primary study question addressed the correlation between patient-rated clinician empathy using the Jefferson Scale of Patient Perceptions of Physician Empathy and clinician communication effectiveness, independently rated by two communication scholars using the Liverpool Communication Skills Assessment Scale. Based on a subset of 68 videos (61%), the interrater reliability was considered good for individual items on the Liverpool Communication Skills Assessment Scale (intraclass correlation coefficient [ICC] 0.78 [95% confidence interval (CI) 0.75 to 0.81]) and excellent for the sum of the items (that is, the total score) (ICC = 0.92 [95% CI 0.87 to 0.95]). To account for the potential association of personal factors with empathy ratings, patients completed measures of symptoms of depression (the Patient-Reported Outcome Measurement Information System depression computerized adaptive test), self-efficacy in response to pain (the two-item Pain Self-Efficacy Questionnaire), health anxiety (the five-item Short Health Anxiety Inventory), and basic demographics.
Accounting for potentially confounding variables, including specific clinicians, marital status, and work status in the multivariable analysis, we found higher independent ratings of communication effectiveness had a slight association (odds ratio [OR] 1.1 [95% CI 1.0 to 1.3]; p = 0.02) with higher (dichotomized) ratings of patient-rated clinician empathy, while being single was associated with lower ratings (OR 0.40 [95% CI 0.16 to 0.99]; p = 0.05). Independent ratings of communication effectiveness were slightly higher for women (regression coefficient 1.1 [95% CI 0.05 to 2.2]); in addition, two of the four attending physicians were rated notably higher than the other 10 participants after controlling for confounding variables (differences up to 5.8 points on average [95% CI 2.6 to 8.9] on a 36-point scale).
The observation that ratings of communication effectiveness by trained communication scholars have little or no association with patient-rated clinician empathy suggests that either effective communication is insufficient for good patient experience or that the existing measures are inadequate or inappropriate. This line of investigation might be enhanced by efforts to identify clinician behaviors associated with better patient experience, develop reliable and effective measures of clinician behaviors and patient experience, and use those measures to develop training approaches that improve patient experience.
Level of Evidence
Level I, prognostic study.