Patients who are treated with empathy during office visits get over colds faster
Research Activities, February 2010, No. 354
Patients who rated clinicians as having "perfect" empathy during medical visits had shorter, less severe colds and greater activation of the immune system, found a new study. The cold duration in the perfect-score group of 84 patients was 7.10 days versus 8.01 for the 264 patients who rated their clinician's empathy as less than perfect. After adjusting for potential confounding demographic and psychosocial factors, differences between the two groups in cold length and severity were significantly lower among patients who rated clinician empathy as perfect. Patients who received more empathy also produced more nasal interleukin-8 (IL-8), a cytokine that plays an immune system role in reducing inflammation.
The researchers recruited 350 patients over 12 years old who were seen at a family practice clinic or a hospital's employee health clinic. Patients were asked to call the study staff at the first sign of a cold, and were set up with physicians' appointments. Some patients received a standard physician visit, others an enhanced physician visit that emphasized physician empathy. The patients filled out a Consultation and Relational Empathy (CARE) questionnaire, with 50 being a perfect physician empathy score. None of the patients were seen by their regular physician; they were seen by a study clinician once, at the beginning of the cold. They kept twice-daily symptom logs and returned after 48 hours and again when their colds had ended. They saw nonphysician study staff at those visits.
Replication of the findings in larger populations is needed, suggest the study authors. Nevertheless, they recommend that including empathy during a medical consultation is likely to have positive effects beyond the medical visit. The study was funded in part by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (T32 HS00083).
More details are in "Practitioner empathy and the duration of the common cold," by David P. Rakel, M.D., Theresa J. Hoeft, Ph.D., Bruce P. Bartrett, M.D., Ph.D., and others, in the July/August 2009 Family Medicine 41(7), pp. 494-501.