There is a statistically significant positive effect on patients when a health care provider is compassionate, according to a meta-study published in PLoS One, a peer reviewed scientific journal.
In the study, patients were seen to heal faster, have less pain and anxiety and even bounce back faster from common colds when health care workers approached them with kindness.
Since August 2008, the Stony Brook Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care, and Bioethics has focused on teaching literature, history, philosophy and the arts, as they relate to the patient as a person against the background of a healthcare system that can often be dehumanizing, impersonal and lacking in care.
“Medical humanities is a way of sensitizing students and doctors and nurses to the experience of illness,” Stephen G. Post, the center’s director, said. “And that in turn builds empathy because you can’t have much empathy or good communication unless you’re willing to observe pretty carefully what someone is experiencing and connect in that. And that in turn leads to good clinical and ethical decisions and outcomes because when big items come up they don’t resolve themselves without good communication and good empathy.”
The center offers classes for undergraduate students, graduate students and courses for both pre-clinical and post-clinical medical students. The center also hosts a poetry community called “Astonished Harvest,” which has workshops and group reflection rounds to promote awareness, introspection and a path to mindfulness.
This mindfulness helps doctors treat patients effectively and overcome burnout and depression. While there is no hard data, a study on Medscape.com says, “It has been reliably estimated that on average the United States loses as many as 400 physicians to suicide each year (the equivalent of at least one entire medical school).”
A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that only 58 percent of Americans surveyed said they “strongly agreed” or “agreed” with the statement “doctors in your country can be trusted.” Only four countries – Chile, Bulgaria, Russia and Poland – had worse numbers.
Thirty percent of women and 23 percent of men have lied to their doctors through omission or “white lies” due to embarrassment or time constraints according to a study by ZocDoc, a kind of Yelp for doctors.
“I think people who are concerned and interested in patients as people experiencing illness tend to be more empathetic,” Post said. “And to the extent that they explicitly engage in such things as narrative medicine and the like. I think it does in fact sharpen their listening skills and their observational abilities, and they can care and connect better with patients.”
A study from the University of South Carolina found that doctors spent an average of only eleven minutes with patients per visit, with patients only speaking for four minutes. It also found that patients spoke uninterrupted for an average of twelve seconds before being interrupted by their health care provider.
“It’s critical for communication because you’re not communicating with the biological slab,” Post said. “You’re communicating with a human being who has a story.”