Listen up, doc: Empathy raises patients' pain tolerance

December 3, 2012, Michigan State University
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

Women sitting ducks for frailty

June 25, 2018
Women who spend more time sitting down as they age are at higher risk of becoming frail, a University of Queensland study has found.

Accurate measurements of sodium intake confirm relationship with mortality

June 21, 2018
Eating foods high in salt is known to contribute to high blood pressure, but does that linear relationship extend to increased risk of cardiovascular disease and death? Recent cohort studies have contested that relationship, ...

Fans of yoga therapy have yet to win over doctors

June 21, 2018
Yoga practitioners often tout the unique health benefits of the ancient discipline—from relieving stress and pain to improving vascular health—but most doctors remain sceptical in the absence of hard proof.

Fruit and vegetables linked to changes in skin colour, new research finds

June 21, 2018
Skin colour in young Caucasian men is strongly linked to high levels of fruit and vegetable consumption, new research by Curtin University has found.

What a pain: The iPad neck plagues women more

June 20, 2018
Is your iPad being a literal pain in the neck?

Medicaid work requirements and health savings accounts may impact people's coverage

June 20, 2018
Current experimental approaches in Medicaid programs—including requirements to pay premiums, contribute to health savings accounts, or to work—may lead to unintended consequences for patient coverage and access, such ...

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.