Last Lecture: Empathy can't cure, but it can alleviate suffering on both sides of the stethoscope

  • March 10, 2016


INDIANAPOLIS -- Recent research in neuroscience and the humanities suggests that empathy -- and empathic communication, in particular -- has a critical role to play in a patient's health and in the building of healing relationships, even in cases where a cure is no longer possible.

But in an era increasingly marked by interactions with speech-recognition software and interfaces such as Siri, are we losing the ability to respond to the suffering of others with genuine empathy? And if so, what are the implications for patients and their families, and for their physicians?

Richard M. Frankel, professor of medicine and geriatrics at the Indiana University School of Medicine on the IUPUI campus, will address these and related questions as the featured speaker for the 2016 Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis Last Lecture at 2 p.m. Friday, April 1, in the IUPUI Campus Center Theatre.

Frankel will reflect on his 35-year personal and professional journey as a health services researcher and family member seeking to understand how empathic communication between physicians and patients has immediate and downstream effects on the quality and outcomes of health care on both sides of the stethoscope.

His interest in empathic communication "took an unexpected turn in 1979, when I lost my mother suddenly due to a preventable communication error involving the delivery of diagnostic information by her physician," Frankel said. "It was devastating, and it transformed my interest in communication theory to one of urgent practical importance. Since that time, my motivation and commitment to improving communication between physicians and patients have been deeply personal as well as scholarly."

Frankel, also director of a palliative care research-and-education program at Indiana University Melvin and Bren Simon Cancer Center, has researched clinician-patient communication and its effects on quality and safety, the effects of exam-room computing on physician-patient communication, and effective organization-change strategies.

A breakdown of civil discourse in some segments of society has contributed to the problems we face today in responding to the suffering of others with empathy, the researcher said. "Another source of alienation from our true selves and our emotions, including empathy, stems from the spread of digital technology worldwide," he added. "It is an interesting irony that the World Wide Web may provide individuals with access to an unprecedented amount of information and people, but accessing the information requires interacting with a 'thing' (smartphone, iPad, computer monitor, etc.), not face-to-face with a person."

Frankel's ongoing research projects include studying the role of relationship-building and professional identity formation in medical care; identifying best practices of residents and practicing physicians for effectively "consuming" the burgeoning amounts of information in the medical literature; and better understanding the role of context and culture in end-of-shift handoffs between residents in medicine and surgery at VA centers in Indianapolis, Chicago and Phoenix.

Frankel has authored more than 200 research and review articles, books and book chapters. One study -- which found that doctors interrupt patients' statements of concern, on average, 18 seconds after they begin speaking, thereby limiting the patient's contribution to agenda-setting -- has been cited in literature more than 1,000 times.

The Last Lecture Series offers the university community an opportunity to hear reflections on life's lessons and meaning from a current or retired IUPUI colleague of exceptional merit. This lecture is sponsored by the IUPUI Senior Academy, the IUPUI Office of Academic Affairs and the Indiana University Foundation.

Reservations for the Last Lecture are required. RSVP online by March 25. For questions, contact the Office of Academic Affairs at or 317-274-4500.

Richard M. Frankel

Richard M. Frankel

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Diane Brown