Listen up, doc: Empathy raises patients' pain tolerance

December 3, 2012
Michigan State University radiology professor Issidoros Sarinopoulos led a study showing that doctors who express empathy change the way their patients' brains function and help them tolerate pain. Credit: Photo by G.L. Kohuth.

A doctor-patient relationship built on trust and empathy doesn't just put patients at ease – it actually changes the brain's response to stress and increases pain tolerance, according to new findings from a Michigan State University research team.

have shown in recent studies that doctors who listen carefully have happier patients with better , but the underlying mechanism was unknown, said Issidoros Sarinopoulos, professor of radiology at MSU.

"This is the first study that has looked at the patient-centered relationship from a neurobiological point of view," said Sarinopoulos, the lead researcher. "It's important for doctors and others who advocate this type of relationship with the patient to show that there is a ."

The study involved randomly assigning patients to one of two types of interview with a doctor before undergoing an . In the patient-centered approach, doctors addressed any concerns participants had about the procedure and asked open-ended questions allowing them to talk freely about their jobs, home life and other psychological and affecting health. The other patients were asked only specific questions about clinical information such as their and what drugs they were taking.

As expected, those who had the patient-focused interview reported greater satisfaction and confidence in their doctor in a post interview questionnaire.

The participants then were placed in the and given a series of mild electric shocks, similar to the discomfort of having an IV needle inserted, while looking at a photo of a doctor who they were told was supervising the procedure. The scans measured activity in the anterior insula – the part of the brain that makes people aware of pain – in anticipation of the shocks and when they actually occurred.

The brain scans revealed those who had the patient-centered interview showed less activity in the anterior insula when they were looking at a photo of the interviewing doctor than when the doctor in the photo was unknown. Those participants also self-reported less pain when the photos showed the known doctor.

Sarinopoulos said the study had a small sample of just nine women and will need to be replicated on a larger scale.

"We need to do more research to understand this mechanism," he said, "but this is a good first step that puts some scientific weight behind the case for empathizing with patients, getting to know them and building trust."

Published in the journal Patient Education and Counseling, the study was part of a broader effort at MSU, led by professor of medicine Robert Smith, to establish standards for patient-centered health care and measure its effectiveness.

"Medicine has for too long focused just on the physical dimensions of the patient," said Smith, who co-authored the paper. "Those clinical questions are important and necessary, but we're trying to demonstrate that when you let patients tell their story in an unfettered way, you get more satisfied patients who end up healthier."

Explore further: Patients want immediate access to radiology test results

Related Stories

Patients want immediate access to radiology test results

April 2, 2012
You've been experiencing severe back pain and weakness in your right leg. Your doctor orders a spinal MRI to help determine the cause. The radiology report diagnoses cancer.

Cancer patients share web info with docs for insight, advice

May 25, 2012
(HealthDay) -- Cancer patients' primary goal in talking with their doctors about information they've found on the Internet is to get more insight and advice on the online information, new research indicates.

Caution advised when considering patient and colleague feedback on doctors

October 28, 2011
Official assessments of a doctor's professionalism should be considered carefully before being accepted due to the tendency for some doctors to receive lower scores than others, and the tendency of some groups of patient ...

Recommended for you

Three million Americans carry loaded handguns daily, study finds

October 19, 2017
An estimated 3 million adult American handgun owners carry a firearm loaded and on their person on a daily basis, and 9 million do so on a monthly basis, new research indicates. The vast majority cited protection as their ...

More teens than ever aren't getting enough sleep

October 19, 2017
If you're a young person who can't seem to get enough sleep, you're not alone: A new study led by San Diego State University Professor of Psychology Jean Twenge finds that adolescents today are sleeping fewer hours per night ...

Across Asia, liver cancer is linked to herbal remedies: study

October 18, 2017
Researchers have uncovered widespread evidence of a link between traditional Chinese herbal remedies and liver cancer across Asia, a study said Wednesday.

Eating better throughout adult years improves physical fitness in old age, suggests study

October 18, 2017
People who have a healthier diet throughout their adult lives are more likely to be stronger and fitter in older age than those who don't, according to a new study led by the University of Southampton.

Global calcium consumption appears low, especially in Asia

October 18, 2017
Daily calcium intake among adults appears to vary quite widely around the world in distinct regional patterns, according to a new systematic review of research data ahead of World Osteoporosis Day on Friday, Oct. 20.

New study: Nearly half of US medical care comes from emergency rooms

October 17, 2017
Nearly half of all US medical care is delivered by emergency departments, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Maryland School of Medicine (UMSOM). And in recent years, the percentage of care delivered ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.