Empathic Communication and Implicit Bias in the Context of Cancer Among a Medical Student Sample

Tara K. Torres, Heidi A. Hamann, Megan J. Shen, Jeff Stone

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Oncology clinicians often miss opportunities to communicate empathy to patients. The current study examined the relationship between implicit bias (based on cancer type and ethnicity) and medical students’ empathic communication in encounters with standardized patients who presented as Hispanic (lung or colorectal) individuals diagnosed with cancer. Participants (101 medical students) completed the Implicit Association Test (IAT) to measure implicit bias based on cancer type (lung v. colorectal) and ethnicity (Hispanic v. non-Hispanic White). Empathic opportunities and responses (assessed by the Empathic Communication Coding System; ECCS) were evaluated in a mock consultation (Objective Structured Clinical Examination; OSCE) focused on smoking cessation in the context of cancer. Among the 241 empathic opportunities identified across the 101 encounters (M = 2.4), 158 (65.6%) received high empathy responses from the medical students. High empathy responses were most frequently used during challenge (73.2%) and emotion (77.3%) opportunities compared to progress (45.9%) opportunities. Higher levels of implicit bias against Hispanics predicted lower odds of an empathic response from the medical student (OR = 3.24, p =.04, 95% CI = 0.09–0.95). Further work is needed to understand the relationship between implicit bias and empathic communication and inform the development of interventions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalHealth Communication
StateAccepted/In press - 2023

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health(social science)
  • Communication


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