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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

To be or not to be empathic: the combined role of empathic concern and perspective taking in understanding burnout in general practice

Martin Lamothe14, Emilie Boujut2, Franck Zenasni2 and Serge Sultan134*

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Psychology, University of Montreal, Succursale Centre- ville, PO Box 6128, Montreal, QC H3C 3J7, Canada

2 Institute of Psychology, Paris Descartes University, Paris, France

3 Department of Pediatrics, University of Montreal, Montreal, QC, Canada

4 Sainte-Justine UHC, Montreal, QC, Canada

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BMC Family Practice 2014, 15:15  doi:10.1186/1471-2296-15-15

Published: 23 January 2014

Abstract

Background

General practice is stressful and burnout is common among family physicians. A growing body of evidence suggests that the way physicians relate to their patients could be linked to burnout. The goal of this study was to examine how patterns of empathy explained physicians’ burnout.

Methods

We surveyed 294 French general practitioners (response rate 39%), measured burnout, empathic concern (EC) and perspective taking (PT) using self-reported questionnaires, and modeled burnout levels and frequencies with EC, PT and their interaction in linear and logistic regression analyses.

Results

Multivariate linear models for burnout prediction were associated with lower PT (β = −0.21, p < 0.001) and lower EC (β = −0.17, p < 0.05). Interestingly, the interaction (EC x PT) also predicted burnout levels (β = 0.11, p < 0.05). The investigation of interactions revealed that high scores on PT predicted lower levels of burnout independent from EC (odd ratios (OR) 0.37; 95% confidence interval (95% CI) 0.21–0.65 p < 0.001), and high scores on both EC and PT were protective against burnout: OR 0.31; 95% CI 0.15–0.63, p < 0.001).

Conclusions

Deficits in PT alone might be a risk factor for burnout, whereas higher PT and EC might be protective. Educators should take into account how the various components of empathy are potentially associated with emotional outcomes in physicians.

Keywords:
Empathy; Sympathy; Empathic concern; Perspective taking; Burnout; Physicians; General practice