The amount of empathy and attentiveness shown by doctors to their patients really does matter. David Rakel and colleagues have found that patients who rate their doctor as highly empathic recover more quickly from a cold. Their illness is shortened by about a day - the same effect shown by the most promising anti-viral drugs. But a doctor's empathy, unlike the anti-viral, doesn't trigger nausea and diarrhoea.
Three hundred and fifty participants were asked to contact the researchers as soon as they noticed the first sign of a cold, at which point they were invited in for a consultation with a doctor. The doctors had received special training from actors in how to come across as sympathetic and understanding and for half the participants they turned on the charm, whereas they gave others a less warm, standard consultation.
The research programme is ongoing and which participants received which kind of consultation is still under-wraps so as not to bias future results (to keep the trial "blind" in the official jargon). However, all the participants rated their doctors empathy and attentiveness and it's from these scores that the key finding emerged.
The 84 participants who gave their doctors a perfect score for empathy and attentiveness recovered from their colds about a day earlier on average; showed a trend towards less severe symptoms; and exhibited double the rise in a marker for immune system activity (biomarker IL-8), as sampled from their noses.
Rather curiously, there was no gradual, "dose-response" effect of doctors' empathy on the participants' recovery. It was only those participants who gave their doctors a perfect empathy score who showed improved recovery. "This may suggest that the perception of empathy by patients may be more of an 'on or off' phenomenon than a graduated response," the researchers said. "We either feel empathy or we don't."
Of course, one possible explanation for the results is that there is something distinct about people who give their doctors perfect empathy ratings, and it's this key trait that's the true cause of their speedier recovery. However, the researchers checked, and the link between a perfect empathy score and recovery still held even after controlling for the effects of participants' age, race, education, stress, optimism, self-reported poorliness and quality of life.
"This finding is in need of replication," the researchers concluded. "Until then, including empathy in the clinical encounter has little potential for harm and has positive influences that extend beyond the medical consultation."
Rakel DP, Hoeft TJ, Barrett BP, Chewning BA, Craig BM, & Niu M (2009). Practitioner empathy and the duration of the common cold. Family medicine, 41 (7), 494-501 PMID: 19582635
Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.