How the Power of Physician Empathy Helps Patients Heal Faster

We all can use a little TLC when we're sick or hurting. Whether it's a family member, a friend, a nurse, or a doctor, we benefit from those who understand how we're feeling and whom we trust have our best interests in mind. We count on their compassion and kindness to make the aches and pains go away and help us heal faster.

Research shows that empathic care can help shorten patients' recovery time. A recent analysis conducted on behalf of Dignity Health by The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education includes a review of published clinical studies on how effective doctor-patient communication improves both the quality and speed of a person's recovery.

Social Support Promotes Healing

Physicians set the tone for letting the patient know that they have a voice in decisions about their care. Active listening for patients' feelings and needs can improve health outcomes by making patients feel more involved in treatment. A study in Social Science & Medicine found that patients with irritable bowel syndrome who were treated by a courteous, sympathetic doctor showed significant improvements in symptoms and quality of life after three weeks. A different study in The Lancet found that a physician's warm, friendly, and reassuring behavior helped patients' symptoms resolve faster, compared with physicians who acted in a formal, nonreassuring manner.

Another study in Wound Practice and Research showed that social support outside the doctor's office can improve care. Patients treated for serious leg infections who also connected with fellow patients in the community healed faster than a control group of patients who only received in-home treatment and no additional support.

Happy Patients Are Healthy Patients

Health care professionals are instrumental in shaping the way patients think and feel about their care. Patients who are more satisfied with the quality of care have greater confidence in their practitioner, which aids in healing. The aforementioned Lancet study found that Swedish patients with tonsillitis were happier, recovered faster, and felt more positive about their treatment when doctors spent an extra four minutes offering reassurance. Another study, in Patient Education and Counseling, showed that seriously injured German patients who rated their trauma surgeons as highly caring viewed their health outcomes more favorably than patients who scored their physician low on empathy.

When Doctors Listen, Patients Heal Faster

A study in the Canadian Medical Association Journal found that kind, respectful doctor-patient communication improves patients' emotional health and creates a more secure environment that is conducive to faster recovery. These interactions help ease the pain from illness or injury, reduce symptoms, and speed up healing from surgery. So when patients are down and out and worried about the recovery ahead, know that a simple thumbs-up or smile from you can provide an extra healing touch.

For more information about empathy and healing, visit The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education.

Trained in medical marketing communications, New York City-based Jeffrey Young has been a health, science, and medicine writer for 15 years. He has also led content-development groups at two PR agencies and currently freelances for both corporate and academic clients, including Bayer, Covidien, Eli Lilly and Company, GlaxoSmithKline, Merck & Co., and Pfizer. Jeffrey's strengths include interpreting research findings and telling stories that resonate with the average health consumer or patient.

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*This information is for educational purposes only and does not constitute health care advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor or physician before making health care decisions.