“Neither genius, fame, nor love show the greatness of the soul. Only kindness can do that.”
-Jean Baptiste Henri Lacordaire, preacher, journalist and activist (1802-1861)
I was trained to be a competent doctor. By the time we left medical school (26 years ago…), we could save lives, diagnose most diseases, prescribe for the most common of these, and complete basic surgery. A year of internship later (working an average of 100 hours a week), we could do still more.
When looking for a doctor, most of us patients focus on credentials. You look at the doctor’s “power wall” to see how many certificates are hanging there. You ask friends for recommendations. You want the best.
But a pleasant bedside manner? That’s well and good for the elderly, but how does it help ME to get better?
Most of us would rather have a clever doctor. We want competence first and foremost.
Researchers at Stanford University show that this view is wrong.
The goal of entering the healthcare system is to get healthy, right?
It turns out that kind doctors are better at reaching this goal.
Social psychologists Lauren Howe and Kari Leibowitz studied the effects of doctors’ bedside manner on patients. The studies were small in sample size, but the results are surprising nonetheless.
76 subjects took part in an allergy study. A doctor administered skin-prick allergy tests to these subjects, using histamine (a substance that causes allergic reactions in all people).
After this, the doctor examined the subjects’ arms. With some, he didn’t say much. With others, he said, “From this point forward, your allergic reaction will start to diminish. Your rash and irritation will go away.”
Nobody was given any medicine to relieve itchiness or irritation. But the ones who got the reassuring words reported less itchiness than the ones who hadn’t.
For the next study, the psychologists wanted to see if a doctor’s personal warmth made a difference.
Again, subjects were given a histamine skin prick. But this time they were split into three groups that saw three different doctors.
One doctor was kind and friendly. She smiled and addressed patients by name. She chatted with them and made eye contact.
The second doctor was cold. She stared at her computer screen. She didn’t introduce herself. She spoke to the subjects only to ask them for practical information.
A third doctor acted competent but was not warm.
All three doctors gave patients a cream saying it would help with the allergic reaction, the irritation, and itching. The cream was actually a placebo (unscented hand lotion). There was nothing active in it.
It turns out ONLY the group with the friendly and professional doctor had reduced allergy symptoms.
“Doctors who are warmer and more competent are able to set more powerful expectations about medical treatments,” said the research team. “Those positive expectations, in turn, have a measurable impact on health.”
The bottom line?
Good medical care requires more than just cold, hard facts. It requires caring. This is probably what Hippocrates called “the art of healing”. Science alone is not enough.
Find a doctor who treats you like a human being, not just a problem to be solved. You will get better faster.
As the Stanford researchers noted, doctor-patient rapport isn’t just a “feel-good bonus that boosts Yelp reviews.” It’s “a component of medical care that has important effects on a patient’s physical health.”
Note: This is not hocus-pocus stuff. The medical environment is a stressful one for patients, even at the best of times (and there aren’t many good times in a hospital). Stress leads to higher cortisol levels. Cortisol is the master brain behind everything that goes wrong in your body. It weakens the immune response, shuts down parts of the brain and pushes up blood glucose. All useful if you are running from a lion, but not good in the day-to-day setting. Reassurance and encouragement lower stress, thus lowering cortisol and increasing the rate at which the body heals itself.