The burden they bear: A scoping review of physician empathy in the intensive care unit

Jessica Bunin*, Emily Shohfi, Holly Meyer, E. Wesley Ely, Lara Varpio

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

8 Scopus citations


Purpose: Research shows that physician empathy can improve patients' reporting of symptoms, participation in care, compliance, and satisfaction; however, success in harnessing these advantages in the ICU hinges on a myriad of contextual factors. This study describes the current state of knowledge about intensivists' empathy. Methods: A scoping review was conducted across six databases and grey literature to clarify intensivists' experiences of empathy and identify directions of future inquiries. The search had no date limits and was specific to empathy, intensivists, and ICU environments. Results were blindly and independently reviewed by authors. Results: The search yielded 628 manuscripts; 45 met inclusion criteria. Three overarching themes connected the manuscripts: (1) the risks and benefits of empathy, (2) the spectrum of connection and distance of intensivists from patients/families, and (3) the facilitators and barriers to empathy's development. Conclusion: Empathy among intensivists is not a dichotomous phenomenon. It instead exists on continua. Four steps are recommended for optimizing empathy in the ICU: clearly defining empathy, addressing risks and benefits transparently, providing education regarding reflective practice, and developing supportive environments. Overall, this review revealed that the state of knowledge about empathy as experienced by intensivists still has room to grow and be further explored.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)156-163
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of Critical Care
StatePublished - Oct 2021
Externally publishedYes


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