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Physician Empathy Helps Manage Stress and Pain

Physician Empathy Helps Individual’s Manage Stress and Pain New research suggests a good patient-physician relationship can actually cause a biological response that improves clinical outcomes.

Michigan State University investigators discovered the trust and empathy associated with a positive physician-patient encounter doesn’t just put patients at ease — it actually changes the brain’s response to stress and increases pain tolerance.

Medical researchers have shown in recent studies that doctors who listen carefully have happier patients with better health outcomes, but the underlying mechanism was unknown, said Issidoros Sarinopoulos, Ph.D., 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 biological basis.”

Researchers randomly assigned patients to one of two types of interview with a doctor before undergoing an MRI scan.

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 social factors affecting health.

The other approach involved the physicians only asking specific questions about clinical information such as their medical history 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 MRI scanner 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.

Researchers admit that the pilot study was limited by a small sample of just nine women and call for additional research on a larger gender balanced sample that reflects the general populace.

“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.”

The study is published in the journal Patient Education and Counseling and is part of a broader effort 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 Robert Smith, M.D., 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.”

Source: Michigan State University

Empathetic doctor with female patient photo by shutterstock.

Physician Empathy Helps Manage Stress and Pain

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Physician Empathy Helps Manage Stress and Pain. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 5, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 4 Dec 2012)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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