Empathy, or the ability to understand and share the feelings of another individual, may improve pain management in patients, changing the brain’s response to stress. According to a new study from Michigan State University, doctor’s empathy tend to lead to better patient outcomes, though the exact mechanism for the altered patient brain response is still unknown.
“This is the first study that has looked at the patient-centered relationship from a neurobiological point of view,” lead researcher Issidoros Sarinopoulos, professor of radiology at MSU, said in a university press release. “It’s important for doctors and others who advocate this type of relationship with the patient to show that there is a biological basis.”
Study participants were randomly assigned one of two questionnaires given by doctors. In the first survey, women were asked patient-centered questions, or allowed to freely discuss important matters such as home life and job stress. In the second questionnaire, the women were only asked technical questions relating to medical history.
To then test the level of pain in relationship to doctor’s empathy, study participants were administered mild electric shocks while being shown an image of the doctor who asked them questions. All brain activity was monitored through MRI scans, and researchers measured the level of activity in the anterior insula, the part of the brain which acknowledges pain.
The results indicated women who felt their doctor was more empathetic showed less pain response than women who were asked only technical questions prior to the procedure.
“We need to do more research to understand this mechanism,” said Sarinopoulos, “but this is a good first step that puts some scientific weight behind the case for empathizing with patients, getting to know them and building trust.”
Doctor’s empathy has been proven particularly important in the health care industry when it comes to new immigrants and minority patients. A John Hopkin’s Children’s Center survey indicated empathy was more important to Hispanic parents than having a doctor who was proficient in Spanish.
In a small study published in the Maternal and Child Health Journal earlier this year, researchers found Latina mothers with limited English language skills were willing to look past language barriers if they felt their child’s medical staff were caring and empathetic.
“As providers, we tend to focus on language barriers and sometimes assume that taking care of this in and of itself is enough, but contrary to expectations, language barriers were not the greatest concern,” lead author Lisa DeCamp, M.D., a pediatrician at Hopkins Children’s, said in an organization statement. “We cannot overemphasize the importance of emotional intelligence and genuine concern for the child and the parent. This back-to-basics approach may be key in reducing any disparities.”