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Empathy is medicinal

 •  • by Paul Ingraham
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Weekly nuggets of pain science news and insight, usually 100-300 words, with the occasional longer post. The blog is the “director’s commentary” on the core content of PainScience.com: a library of major articles and books about common painful problems and popular treatments. See the blog archives or updates for the whole site.

Imagine trying to encourage a doctor to be empathic with a citation: “So I found this study on PubMed, and it says right here you should give a shit about how I feel…”

A new study of chronic low back pain patients reports that they did better with more empathic physicians. Quite a bit better! I’m not really surprised by the positive result, but I am surprised by how positive it was.

Licciardone et al divided physicians into two groups, “very” empathic and only “slightly” empathic (as determined by a survey, the “Consultation and Relational Empathy measure”). Various scores were much better for the lucky patients who got some empathy — disability and fatigue especially, but also actual pain intensity.

Clinically relevant caring!

Screenshot of abstract for Licciardone et al. with several phrases highlighted in yellow and a couple in red, most notably: “empathy was associated with better outcomes over 12 months. Greater efforts to cultivate and improve physician empathy appear warranted.”

“Greater efforts to cultivate & improve physician empathy appear warranted.” Ya think?!

The compassionate alternative

The main thing alternative medicine should be the alternative to is not medical treatments, but the fast and cold style of doctors. “Not all doctors,” obviously, but physicians will always struggle to be empathic because of the scale, institutionalization, and harsh dilemmas of medicine.

For instance, neurologists can’t really be expected to take a lot of time to troubleshoot maybe-neurology problems, puzzles that are legitimately beyond their understanding, when they are appropriately preoccupied with (and indeed probably overwhelmed by) clinical challenges like strokes, MS, and ALS.

This evidence really adds some weight to the argument that alternative medicine should focus on supplying what doctors often just cannot: empathy! Because that actually helps. (And homeopathy doesn’t.) See Alternative Medicine’s Choice.

PainSci Member Login » Submit your email to unlock member content. If you can’t remember/access your registration email, please contact me. ~ Paul Ingraham, PainSci Publisher