Comorbid Chronic Pain and Depression: Patient Perspectives on Empathy

Elizabeth A. Sternke, Kathleen Abrahamson, Matthew J. Bair

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Scopus citations


Clinician empathy is a well-documented component of effective patient/provider communication. Evidence surrounding the association between patient perspectives on clinician empathy and perception of pain management is currently limited, particularly among patients with chronic pain and depression. The aim of this study was to analyze patients’ perspectives on the emergent theme of empathy and describe how patients construct their experiences and expectations surrounding empathic interactions. A secondary analysis of focus group data was designed using grounded theory methodology. Veterans Affairs (VA) and University Primary Care Clinics. Respondents with chronic pain and comorbid depression (N = 18) were 27 to 84 years old (mean 54.8 years), 61% women, 22% black, and 74% white. Study participants highly valued empathy and two types of empathic interactions: empathic listening and empathic action. Patients who provided examples of empathic interactions claimed that others understood, valued, and cared for them. In contrast, patients who perceived a lack of empathy and empathic interactions felt frustrated and uncared for by others (including their physicians) physically and emotionally. Patients with chronic pain and depression claimed that empathy helped them feel understood, believed, taken seriously, and that their needs were met. In demonstrating empathy and engaging in empathic interactions with patients, providers relate better to patients, better understand their life experience, and provide patient-centered care that is meaningful for patients, providers, and the health care systems within which they interact. Future research is needed to purposefully study the effects of empathic interactions on outcomes for patients with chronic pain and comorbid depression.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)363-371
Number of pages9
JournalPain Management Nursing
Issue number6
StatePublished - Dec 1 2016

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Advanced and Specialized Nursing

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