An empathetic doctor could help reduce the risk of early death among people with type 2 diabetes, University of Cambridge researchers have said.

The research team wanted to investigate how GPs’ behaviour towards their patients can impact their health, and report that empowering positive behaviour change could be important for improving health outcomes.

Questionnaires were collected from 628 people, from across 49 general practices in the UK, a year after they were diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.

They were asked about their experiences with diabetes care within the surgery and their answers were divided into three groups based on the level of empathy they received from their doctor. The groups were based on how high a result the participants got according to a consultation and relational empathy (CARE) score.

The findings showed that just under one in five (19%) experienced a cardiovascular disease event and 21% of people passed away from causes including cancer and heart attack during follow-up.

Notably, those who reported that their doctor had been empathetic during appointments 13 months after diagnosis had between a 40-50% reduced risk of death.

Dr Hajira Dambha-Miller, a GP and researcher at the Department of Public Health and Primary Care, University of Cambridge, said: “In trying to manage the growing burden of chronic preventable disease, we’re increasingly moving towards precision healthcare, target-driven care and technology-based assessment, while at the same time focusing less on the huma, interpersonal empathic aspects of care.

“Our findings suggest that these more human elements of healthcare early, in the course of diabetes, may be important in their long-term health outcomes. The potential impact is considerable and is comparable to prescribing medicines but without the associated problems of side effects or non-adherence.”

The researchers listed several reasons why empathy may be linked to better health outcomes. Among the possible reasons proposed were that empathetic doctors may be better at promoting positive behavioural change.

The results of the study have been published in the Annals of Family Medicine.

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