Physician's encouraging words more effective than many may realize, study finds

When physicians are warm and reassuring, patients' health outcomes may improve significantly, two social psychologists write in The New York Times.

The article was written by Lauren Howe and Kari Leibowitz, social psychologists at Stanford (Calif.) University.

A brief reassurance a physician makes to a patient may relieve the patient's symptoms faster, the authors said.

In a recent study one of the authors conducted, researchers recruited 76 participants to receive a skin prick allergy assessment test. The provider in the study pricked participants' forearms with histamine, which makes skin itchy and red.

The physician then looked at the patients' allergic reactions. In some cases, the physician examined the patient without saying much. For other patients, however, the physician gave them words of encouragement.

He said: "From this point forward, your allergic reaction will start to diminish, and your rash and irritation will go away."

The researchers found this one sentence of assurance from a provider led patients to say their reactions were less itchy — even though the physician did not provide medication or treatment.

"Words alone from the provider relieved patients' symptoms," the authors said. "This tells us that a physician's words might be more powerful than we normally realize."

The findings suggest physician who fail to connect with their patients may risk undermining treatment success, the authors wrote.

"Particularly as artificial intelligence promises a world where we don't need to go to the doctor for minor questions, we should not overlook the value of interacting with a human doctor and hearing words of encouragement," they said.

And there are simple ways to build warmth and competence with patients  — including smiling, looking patients in the eye and asking their names — that do not tax physicians beyond their workloads limits, the authors said.

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