Adding to the growing body of research demonstrating clinical benefits of empathetic healthcare, a new study from Michigan State University found that physician empathy raises patients' tolerance for pain.
"This is the first study that has looked at the patient-centered relationship from a neurobiological point of view," Issidoros Sarinopoulos, professor of radiology at MSU, said in a statement. "It's important for doctors and others who advocate this type of relationship with the patient to show that there is a biological basis."
For the study, researchers divided patients about to receive an MRI scan into two groups. With one group, physicians conducted a patient-centered interview, which addressed participants' concerns about the procedure and included open-ended questions about patients' home life or other psychological and social factors affecting health. The other group members were asked only specific clinical questions.
The participants were then placed in an MRI scanner and given a series of mild electric shocks. According to the researchers, participants from the patient-centered group not only showed less activity in the anterior insula, the part of the brain that measures pain awareness, but also self-reported less pain when showed photos of the doctor they were told was supervising the procedure.
A recent Washington Post article about the success of hospital "life specialists" to help children cope with illness and procedures supports this theory. A program led by these specialists called "MR-I Can Do It" at Children's National Medical Center, for example, has so far enabled more than 125 children to undergo MRI scans without sedation. Before the program started, almost all children younger than 12 were automatically sedated with anesthesia for the exam, according to the article.