The Power of a Physician's Kind Word

Alicia Ault


April 10, 2019

In This Article

The Effect of Kind Behavior

Physicians sometimes wonder how much patients pay attention to what they say and what kind of impact they have made.

The answer appears to be that a kind word and expression of concern from a physician can have a far more powerful effect on patients than was previously thought. A growing body of evidence suggests that offering kindness, empathy, or words of encouragement leads to better patient engagement, a more trusting relationship, better health outcomes, and a less stressful practice for clinicians.

Physicians often feel compassion and warmth toward patients but don't realize that they're not always expressing it in a way that comes through, say experts. A few well-placed words and actions from a physician can make a huge difference in how a patient responds, both physically and emotionally.

What Does a Physician Convey to Patients?

While empathy and compassion are often used interchangeably, they're not the same, and both are important, said Stephen Trzeciak, MD, MPH, professor and chair of medicine at Cooper Medical School of Rowan University, Camden, New Jersey. Empathy is the ability to mirror someone's emotions—feeling their pain—while compassion indicates a desire to take action, Trzeciak told Medscape.

Trzeciak says that spending an extra 40 seconds showing compassion to a patient can make a large difference in the patient's outcome and in reducing physician burnout. Trzeciak and colleague Anthony Mazzarelli, MD, JD, MBE, recently published Compassionomics: The Revolutionary Scientific Evidence that Caring Makes a Difference (Perfect Paperback), which explores the impact of compassion in medicine. Most of the 440 references cited in the book point to a strong correlation between kindness and better health, said Trzeciak.

"What we found through this systematic review is a very clear signal in the data that compassion matters," he said, "and that it matters in ways that are not just meaningful, emotional, sentimental, and ethical, but also in scientific ways."

Trzeciak and colleagues identified 50 potential mechanisms of action for compassion—ranging from effects on physiology, pain, psychology, and neurobiology, to health quality, experience, and patient and physician satisfaction—and 45 potential outcome measures.[1]

They found evidence that compassion can reduce systemic inflammatory pathophysiology, leading to enhanced wound healing and better immune function. Compassion can also stimulate better patient adherence, leading to better control of disease progression and a shorter recovery time, they suggested.

Admittedly, it is an evolving science because so much of the data is observational, not experimental, said Trzeciak. But Trzeciak said he is convinced that compassion can improve health outcomes, decrease burnout, and lower the cost of healthcare.


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