Doctor Empathy Could Decrease Stress, Pain Sensitivity In Patients: Study

Doctors who take the time to listen and understand what their patients are going through could actually have a positive effect on their patients' pain tolerance and stress levels, according to a small new study.

The Michigan State University research showed that doctor-patient empathy is linked with decreased activity of the anterior insula region of the brain -- the region responsible for pain awareness.

"We need to do more research to understand this mechanism," study researcher Issidoros Sarinopoulos, a radiology professor at the university, said in a statement. "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."

The study, published in the journal Patient Education and Counseling, included nine women who underwent MRI brain scans. Before the scans, they spoke with physicians; some of them talked to doctors who only asked about very clinical information -- like what medicines they took, and their medical history -- while others talked to those who took a more patient-centric approach -- like asking them about their home life, work, and anything that could affect their health.

Then, the researchers had the study participants look at photos of both their own doctors and other doctors who they didn't know as they were administered tiny electric shocks, all while undergoing the MRI scans. Researchers found that those who had talked with their doctors in the more patient-centric way experienced a decrease in anterior insula activity when they looked at photos of their doctor, than when they looked at pictures of an unknown doctor.

Earlier this year, a study in the journal Academic Medicine suggested that empathy in doctors might actually be linked with patient outcomes. Specifically, it showed that diabetes patients of doctors who scored lower on a test of empathy were more likely to have a acute metabolic complications associated with their condition, than patients of doctors who scored higher on the test.