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Kind doctors have healthier patients

Kind doctors have healthier patients

Kind doctors who treat their patients with empathy are linked to better health outcomes for patients, the annual scientific meeting of the Australian and New Zealand College of Anaesthetists will hear tomorrow (Wednesday).

Patients who are treated with compassion trust their doctors and are more likely to follow advice, take their medication and adopt healthy lifestyle changes – and they are less likely to need pain relief and hospital care following surgery, according to Dr Robin Youngson, co-founder of the organisation Hearts in Healthcare.

He points to:

A Harvard University “meta-analysis” of 13 randomised control trials published in 2014 which found that, for people at risk of heart attack or stroke, having an empathic doctor was better for their health than stopping smoking.

A 2010 study of early palliative care for lung cancer: among patients with empathic doctors, even those who turned down chemotherapy and radiotherapy lived 30 per cent longer than patients with non-empathic doctors.

A 2012 study of 21,000 insulin-dependent diabetic patients in Italy: those with doctors lacking in empathy had 70 per cent more admissions to hospital for the treatment of life-threatening diabetic crises.

“As doctors, we have to relate to patients as human beings,” Dr Youngson says. “We need to understand their feelings, we need to engage with them and validate them, and we need to use our power of positive suggestion to talk to them in a more positive way about how they can contribute to their own recovery and cope with pain.”

This has been known for decades, he says, following a randomised trial at Harvard Hospital in the US in 1964. It divided patients into two groups: the first received a standard pre-surgery briefing in which the anaesthetist was cool and detached, and the second group had a warm and supportive talk with an anaesthetist.

Following surgery, patients in the second group needed only half the morphine of the control group and were discharged an average of three days sooner.

“If a new, cheap and safe drug could halve opiate requirements after major surgery and substantially reduce patients’ length of stay without any adverse side effects, wouldn’t we rapidly adopt it?” Dr Youngson asks.

Dr Youngson said there was a widespread belief in the medical profession that doctors who got close to patients were at risk of burn-out, “But the research doesn’t support that. The more empathetic doctors were, the less likely they were to burn out.”

He said medical training needs to change to accommodate these realities and to teach students the skills they need to conduct empathic consultations: “The research says medical students come to medical school with high ideals but that medical training is brutalising. There is good evidence that doctors’ empathy decreases during medical school.”

Dr Youngson travels widely overseas, including the US and the Middle East, to promote “human-centred” medical care. He says a more compassionate approach reduces burnout and stress for doctors, promotes well-being and recovery for patients, and saves time and money for medical systems.


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