What Is Empirical Treatment?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Shereen Skola
  • Last Modified Date: 05 December 2019
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In medicine, empirical treatment can refer to treatments delivered before a definitive diagnosis, or provided on the basis of observation and experience. The meaning of the term may be clear from context. Both rely on practical medical experience, which can reveal the most effective way to treat disease in some environments. Researchers who study empirical treatment in both senses of the word look for evidence to support treatment protocols, providing definitive documentation to justify its use in various medical settings.

The first sense of this term involves a situation where a doctor evaluates a patient and starts delivering treatment before a specific diagnosis is available, on the grounds that proceeding immediately is better than waiting. This may because of concerns that the patient could develop complications while waiting for test results or further evaluation, or out of worry that the patient might not follow through with treatment if a follow-up is requested. For example, if a patient arrives with what appears to be a urinary tract infection, the doctor may prescribe antibiotics rather than requesting a urine sample and testing it to find out which organisms are present.


Based on experience, doctors may deliver immediate empirical treatment to benefit a patient who needs care. If the patient doesn’t respond, another evaluation can provide information about why, and may help the doctor decide how to proceed. Additionally, treating the symptoms empirically can stabilize a patient long enough to figure out what is going on so the doctor can provide definitive care. When someone stops breathing, for instance, the first goal is to secure the airway and get the patient breathing again to keep the patient alive before proceeding with diagnostic testing to find out why it happened.

Observation and experience can inform empirical treatment, rather than theory. This can be especially common in psychology and psychiatry, where there are a number of theories to explain human behavior and how people respond to treatment. Individual mental health professionals may make their own decisions about how to treat patients on the basis of experience, surveys, and conversations with other people in the field. Cognitive behavioral therapy, for example, is a form of treating empirically for several mental health disorders.

Experience can inform a practitioner’s judgment, which is one reason patients tend to prefer health care providers with more training and experience. In situations where several treatments could be considered, an individual decision may be made on the basis of observations of prior patients and similar events. Thus, two patients being treated for the same condition might receive different and equally reasonable treatments, because their doctors are operating on practical experiences in the past, rather than predominant medical theory.


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