How effective is empathy in treating pain?
When people are in pain, painkillers are often prescribed for them. Researchers have now found that pain relievers are not always necessary to help those affected. Empathic, positive messages from doctors to their patients mean that the pain suffered is alleviated.
In their current research, scientists from the internationally renowned University of Oxford and the University of Southampton found that empathy from doctors and medical professionals can help people with pain to reduce their pain. The experts published the results of their study in the English-language journal "Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine".
Scientists analyzed the data from more than 6,000 subjects
For their study, the doctors examined a total of 28 clinical studies, which included more than 6,000 patients. The evaluation shows that the treatment results can be improved if the doctors treat their patients with more empathy. The studies examined looked at the effects of empathy or positive communication in health advice. The researchers examined the effects of empathy on pain, asthma, irritable bowel syndrome, osteoarthritis and post-surgery recovery. Physicians also examined the effects of positive communication on quality of life and patient satisfaction, based on reports from patients in these studies.
How did empathy work?
The main benefits were achieved when doctors shared positive and reassuring messages with the intent to improve a patient's expectations. In these studies, patients reported that they were five to 20 percent more satisfied with their treatment than those who received only standard care. The participants also reported a slightly improved quality of life.
Is the effect clinically relevant?
In pain trials that compared physicians' increased empathy with conventional treatment, patients reported an additional half a point pain reduction on a visual ten-point scale, the experts say. Although this reduction indicates that empathy has little effect on pain, this is not sufficient for a reduction by one or two points, which suggests that the effect is only of limited clinical relevance.
Empathy can relieve pain and anxiety
Doctors can do much more than prescribe medication and other treatments to help patients with mild to moderate pain, study author Dr. Jeremy Howick from the University of Oxford. Based on the clinical studies examined, the potential for this type of intervention appears to help many general practitioners. It is clear that whether patients need medication or not, a dose of empathy can reduce their pain and anxiety, the study's authors explain.
More research is needed
For many of the studies examined, the quality of the evidence was relatively poor and there were few studies on the subject. This means that the current conclusions could change with future research, explains Dr. Jeremy Howick. The study shows that empathy and positive verbal communication bring relatively little benefit to patients and are unlikely to have any harmful effects. It is therefore necessary to examine in more detail how this benefit can be maximized. While larger, high-quality studies are now needed, the current study is an important step forward in this conceptually difficult field, adds Dr. Howick added. (as)