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How Respectful Care Can Boost Your Immune System


January 22, 2016 Posted in: Personal Health , Article

Kind, respectful care is a core component of the physician-patient relationship and a key to patients' greater satisfaction with the quality of their health care. According to new research, empathy from a doctor can even help patients fight off common illnesses.

A study on behalf of Dignity Health conducted by The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education shows that, when patients perceive their doctor as caring and compassionate, they have a stronger immune system and recover faster from a cold.

Physician Kindness Helps Fight Infection

The research includes a review of published clinical studies on the relationship between clinician empathy and the duration and severity of colds. In a 2009 Family Medicine study, patients rated doctors on a questionnaire across different measures of empathy. Using a scale of one (poor) to five (excellent), patients noted whether their doctor made them feel at ease, showed care and compassion, understood their concerns, acted positively, and explained things clearly. The patients who gave their doctors perfect scores had shorter colds by about a day and milder symptoms than patients who gave their doctors lower scores. Patients who received respectful care also showed higher blood levels of a specific antibody for fighting colds and other upper-respiratory infections.

Subsequent research published in Patient Education and Counseling echoed these results: The study found that, when a clinician listens and conveys empathy, the act can stimulate the patient's immune system and help ward off a cold.

Emotions Influence Immunity

Research in gene expression explains how emotions affect a person's ability to fight off illness. Studies in PLOS Genetics and the American Journal of Public Health compared two groups of genes that regulate the body's immune response -- one that weakens immunity and another that bolsters it. Loneliness and fear were associated with increased expression of pro-inflammatory genes, which are associated with certain diseases. On the other hand, socially rewarding experiences, such as compassion and human connection from respectful care, shifted this gene expression and strengthened the immune response.

A Dose of Empathy Is the Right Medicine

Respectful care is the foundation for relationship-centered health care, in which patients form ongoing, therapeutic alliances with clinicians they trust. This positive emotional connection is a simple prescription for better health and wellness. Research shows it may work just as well as any cold remedy to boost your immunity, stop stuffiness and sneezing, and shorten a cold.

For more information on the impact of respectful care on health, visit The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education.

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