As a physician specializing in neurosurgery at an academic medical center, I appreciate the unhappiness many patients have with the present healthcare delivery system that is rushed, bureaucratic, non-caring and technology-focused.
In the U.S. we spend more per capita than any other industrialized country, yet the outcomes are some of the worst in the world, with the highest levels of patient dissatisfaction.
What is the solution? Francis W. Peabody, M.D. said in 1925 that,
These words are even more true today and are now backed by an ever enlarging body of science that demonstrates that kindness, compassion and empathy have a profound effect on healing. This new body of evidence spanning psychology, neuroscience, and even economics reveals that as a species our default mode is not one of self-centeredness but that we are wired to connect and when we connect our physiology improves for the better.
For example, a study that subjected volunteers to the common cold virus on purpose as part of the experiment found that when those volunteers rated the doctor who interacted with them as very kind, they were less likely to develop a full-blown cold, their symptoms were less severe, and the illness cleared up faster.
At the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) at Stanford University, of which I am the founder and director, we have created programs and workshops whereby using science we promote the power of compassion and kindness to improve one’s health.
At a recent workshop a participant who was going through cancer treatment shared how her world-renowned physician delivered her cancer diagnosis never looking her in the eye and explained her prognosis as a series of statistics and walked out abruptly.
While a difficult situation itself, the physician compounded this by his less than empathetic manner that resulted in further pain to the patient potentially negatively affecting her prognosis. Stories such as this inspire our work at CCARE with clinicians to help them understand the power of the clinician-patient relationships on their patients’ health and give them tools to positively affect this relationship.
For many people, simply interacting with doctors and the healthcare systems provokes anxiety. In some instances patients tolerate a physician’s lack of empathy or sensitivity believing that his or her technical expertise is more important while oftentimes the interaction itself elicits unnecessary stress and anxiety. Research has demonstrated that in such situations one’s immune function and wound healing capabilities can be negatively affected.
While some clinicians don’t appreciate this reality, research has demonstrated that when a physician or nurse shows empathy for a patient — listening, connecting, and validating them — the patient is more likely to recover faster across a wide variety of medical conditions to even include surgery.
One study has demonstrated that an empathetic interaction with a physician can have as much of a positive impact on one’s risk of heart attack as taking an aspirin a day.
It is amazing what difference a physician’s attitude can have on a patient. A positive emotional state allows one to more fully connect, decreases anxiety and leads to a faster recovery. There is even evidence that when a patient listens to less than a minute of compassionate communication from a physician they feel less anxious. Researchers have mapped reduced anxiety and increased positive emotion to biological and immunological responses in the body. The good news is that kindness isn’t just good for patients. Neuroscience shows that acting with kindness toward others stimulates the reward circuits in our brains, so giving and receiving kindness has a positive effect on physicians and nurses as well.
A recent study asked romantic partners to visit a laboratory together. One partner was subjected to a painful requirement to hold an arm in icy cold water until they couldn’t stand it anymore. When the other partner was kind and validating, the person with an arm in the painfully cold water actually reported significantly less pain.
We need to remember this superpower of kindness to reduce pain.
In fact, across many studies we see that expressions of respect, acceptance, warmth, and open sharing of information contribute to less pain from conditions such as fibromyalgia and arthritis, as well as better health for those with chronic conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, or asthma.
Why does kindness heal?
Science is opening a window into the many ways that we are connected and showing us that how physicians interact with patients affects the patients’ physiology. Often in ways we may not immediately recognize, but that have real consequences, patients who on top of their illness are treated unkindly or with insensitivity are actually receiving a double hurt that can exacerbate the initial condition for which they sought treatment.
Hopefully sharing this new science of kindness helps all of us–physicians and patients alike–to see in new ways how and why kindness heals and even more importantly how being kind results in one living a longer–and happier–life.