The Power of a Physician's Kind Word

Alicia Ault


April 10, 2019

In This Article

How Does Compassion Help Health?

Researchers who have studied empathy and compassion say that kindness has a demonstrable and measurable effect.

Lauren Howe, PhD, a social psychologist and chair of human research management and leadership at the University of Zurich, Switzerland, told Medscape, "The work on empathy has shown that people who interact with more empathetic physicians have shorter durations of the common cold and have better outcomes when it comes to complications related to diabetes."

Howe led an experiment showing that patients fared better when their clinician was warmer and acted more competent; they felt worse when the provider acted cold and less competent. In that trial,[2] all of the patients were given a skin prick with histamine. Both groups were given a cream with no active ingredients. The clinician set either positive expectations (cream will reduce reaction) or negative expectations (cream will increase reaction). Additionally, one group got a clinician who was chatty, smiling, making eye contact, called the patient by name, worked in a clean office, and gave the skin prick without hesitation. The other group met with a doctor who was focused on a computer screen, did not introduce herself, was in a messy office, and hesitated during the skin prick.

The results showed that the impact of patient expectations of the allergic response was enhanced when the clinician acted both warmer and more competent, and was negated when the provider acted colder and less competent.

Researchers concluded that clinicians could harness this psychological placebo effect—behaving more warmly and showing more care—to improve treatment outcomes.

"We see that when people have more trust in their healthcare provider, they're more likely to follow through on recommended care, they report that they are in better health, and they are more likely to be engaged in their health," Jessica Greene, PhD, professor of health policy at Baruch College, New York City, told Medscape.


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