The Power of a Positive Doctor

Social psychologists are finding that a reassuring word from the doctor can make a measurable difference in your health.

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Posted in , Mar 7, 2019

A positive doctor meets with a patient

We all know that a kind word can make us feel better, but in the doctor’s office, can it actually make us feel better, literally? Research by social psychologists at Stanford University suggests that it can.

Lauren Howe and Kari Leibowitz conducted experiments in which they pricked a mild histamine into participants’ skin, which causes skin to become itchy and red. In one study, a doctor either encouraged the participant with the suggestion that the itch would quickly dissipate, or they said nothing at all during a cursory exam. Without any other treatment, the participants who were seen by the kind doctor reported less itching than the other group. 

In another study, the same skin prick test was given, and a placebo cream was offered to participants who were seen either by a warm, confident, engaging doctor or a distant, scattered physician. Only those participants who were seen by the kind doctor reported that the cream diminished their symptoms.

As I read about Howe’s and Leibowitz’s work, I recalled a series of doctors I’ve had who fit into both categories.

There was the doctor who said he was “underwhelmed” by my chronic lower back pain. The doctor who was visibly doodling during a complex conversation. The doctor who called me “uncooperative” when I had an involuntary negative reaction to a procedure. The doctor who was interested in the origins of my last name, but ran out of time when it came to the actual exam.

I then think of the doctor who asked questions and maintained eye contact the whole time I answered. The doctor who heard my fears about a procedure and adjusted so I did not have the reaction. The doctors whose demeanor was warm, presence was kind and words were clear but reassuring. 

Luckily, there are many such positive providers. But it took me a long time to realize that choosing one was as important to my overall health as a doctor’s educational pedigree or even parking convenience. This research confirms what I have learned—that it’s called “health care” because we are so much more than numbers on a lab chart, lists of symptoms or conditions and doses of medication. We are human beings, and we thrive when we are cared for.

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