Why is finding an empathic doctor important for your health?

We all want a doctor who is competent – someone who knows what their talking about and can make the correct diagnosis and prescribe the appropriate treatment. We all also want a doctor who is kind and compassionate – someone who genuinely cares about our well-being and sees us as a human being, and not just a patient. This can greatly enhance our experience at the doctor’s office, and make us more likely to go back in the future to get checked up if something bothers us. Additionally, recent studies have even demonstrated that having an empathic doctor can actually even improve treatment outcomes.

The placebo effect is something that many of us have already heard about – even when a particular pill or cream has no active ingredients, just the belief that it will work can actually reduce symptoms and make people feel better. However, this seemingly magical effect hasn’t always been consistent, with some studies showing its power weaker than previously found.

Why would this be? A recent study conducted an experimental study to focus on the characteristics of health care professionals to see if that might impact the efficacy of the placebo effect. Specifically, the researchers focused on physician competence (e.g., biomedical information) and warmth (e.g., discussing feelings and emotions) perceived by participants.

In the experiment, participants were ostensibly told that they were participating in a study about novel food preferences, but before they can participate, they would need to undergo a food screening involving an allergy skin prick test. During the skin prick test, physicians slightly pricked a patient’s skin with a device soaked in histamine, which induced an allergic reaction with a raised bump of itchy skin surrounded by redness. During the skin prick, the health care provider placed an unscented hand lotion on the bump and then told the participants that the cream would reduce the reaction and itching.

However, unbeknownst to the participants, the health care provider was trained by the experimenter to either act with high or low competence and high or low warmth during the entire procedure. For instance, a health care provider who was trained to act both highly competent and warm would make lots of eye contact, call the person by their name and introduce themselves, and conduct the procedure in an organized, clean room. A health care provider who was instructed to act incompetent and cold would minimize eye contact, not smile, and use a lot of filler words like “um”.     

As expected, the hand lotion did help alleviate the allergic reactions even without any active ingredient – replicating the placebo effect that we’re all familiar with. But what is unique about this study is that the researchers found that the calming effect was amplified the most by physicians who appeared to be both warm and competent by the participants, followed in second place by those who were only warm but didn’t seem all that competent. By contrast, physicians who acted cold but highly competent didn’t produce any better results than those who were seen as neither warm nor competent – suggesting that in some instances, the patient perception of physician warmth may have a greater impact on treatment outcomes than the perception of physician competence.

Studies like this are just one out of many that demonstrate the value of having a warm and compassionate doctor – not only will they enhance our experience at the doctor’s office, but they can even improve treatment outcomes. That’s why it’s important for medical schools to also value the development of these noncognitive traits among their students, which has generally been underemphasized or worse, undermined in medical training and also ensure that students are entering medical school with the necessary ingredients to nurture these people skills.

By: Ruihong Yuan, Contributor

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