Brain scans prove physicians' empathy

It may not come naturally for all doctors to let their empathy show, but new research shows that, on a neurobiological level, physicians do in fact "feel" patients' pain, as well as their relief following treatment.

For the study, published online this week in Molecular Psychiatry, physicians underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging of their brains while they believed they were treating patients' pain. During the experiment, when physicians were asked to administer treatment they were told would provide pain relief, the same parts of their brain activated as they would with a placebo response, according to the Harvard-affiliated research team.

"Now, for the first time, we've shown that caring for patients encompasses a unique neurobiology in physicians. Our ultimate goal is to transform the 'art of medicine' into the 'science of care,'" said the study's senior author, Ted Kaptchuk, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, in a statement.

While not addressed by the study, these findings may also illuminate the difficulty physicians face in assessing patients' pain and determining how to treat it safely. Considering that physicians in the Harvard experiment felt real empathy for the "patients," who were actually reading from a script, it stands to reason that doctors would experience the same response with malingerers who present in their office.

According to Kaptchuk and colleagues, their research represents an "important first step in this process as we continue investigations to find out how patient-clinician interactions can lead to measurable clinical outcomes in patients."

To learn more:
- read the statement from Harvard University
- see the abstract from Molecular Psychiatry

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