The Influence of Empathy on the Healing Process

Healthcare professionals dedicate their careers to improving the lives of individuals, many of whom face serious, sometimes life-threatening illnesses. While it can often prove challenging to provide optimal care and compassion in a fast-paced environment, forming relationships remains an inherent part of a positive and patient-centered experience. Even so, many healthcare professionals develop a kind of cognitive dissonance: spurred by the continuous transitions between clinical and emotional care with patients.

What level of impact can a healthcare professional’s words and actions have on a patient’s treatment outcome? A recent article published in The New York Times explores the findings of studies surrounding the power of a healthcare professional’s words.

Written by Lauren Howe, PhD and Kari Leibowitz, a social psychology graduate student, the research focuses on the relief that patients can experience when receiving reassurance and affirmation from their doctors. Leibowitz’s findings additionally outline the cumulative effect that this kind of comfort has on the patient healing process.

Leibowitz’s research included a study in which 76 patients participated in an allergy assessment that involved a skin prick test: histamine was administered to their arms, which led to itching and inflammation. Half the test group was seen by a clinician who remained distant and reserved, while the other participants interacted with a physician who offered encouragement. The latter doctor told his patients: “From this point forward, your allergic reaction will start to diminish, and your rash and irritation will go away.” Both groups received a placebo cream said to be an antihistamine to reduce inflammation and redness. Within the second group, the simple affirmation resulted in an increase of reports that itching diminished. Patients additionally reported improvements more rapidly than those who did not receive any kindness or assurance from their provider.

In concluding her study, Leibowitz states: “We often think the only parts of medical care that really matter are the ‘active’ ingredients of medicine: the diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment. But focusing only on these ingredients leaves important components of care underappreciated and underutilized. To really help people flourish, health care works better when it includes caring.”

While this specific study focused on the spoken words of a doctor, the same effect is consistently observed with patients who receive encouragement from their nurses. In seeking facilities to treat illnesses, patients will often focus on statistics like procedure success rates, or staff credentials. Many patients will also evaluate a facility’s online reviews from websites like Yelp or Google. While a healthcare provider’s bedside manner may be considered secondary to his or her level of experience, sensitivity, and compassion are also being assessed in a patient’s decision-making process.  Experts argue that building a relationship with one’s patients may have an effect that goes beyond demonstrating a level of care.

Today, patients have access to web-based tools when it comes to their healthcare. This access includes telemedicine, apps, and a host of other technologies. As medicine continues to evolve into a more digitized field, balanced patient relationships have become increasingly critical. Other studies similar to Leibowitz’s have sought to analyze the effect of empathy in the medical field, and further suggest that kind words could stimulate results similar to the placebo effect.

Patients facing illness or pain often turn to healthcare professionals for assurance and expertise. In a hospital environment, nurses tend to have more interaction with patients than their doctors, making their interactions particularly impactful. These individuals in a state of vulnerability yearn for compassion and reassurance from those they intrinsically trust.

Medical care delivered with warmth has been linked to a measurable, positive impact on patients’ healing processes. The compassion portion of healthcare delivery is essential and something to be embraced by all nurses. While the prospect of saving lives fuels nurses, the element of kindness is too often forgotten amid clinical care. MedPro is committed to providing quality nurses and allied professionals in each healthcare facility we staff throughout the country. Part of our caring for nurses includes The MedPro Experience, a personalized employee engagement program that embraces and celebrates you and your career. To learn more about this unique and exciting offering, contact us today at 1-800-866-8108, or apply here!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *