Patients have ′less pain′ when doctors believe in treatment | News | DW | 22.10.2019
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Patients have 'less pain' when doctors believe in treatment

Whether a doctor believes in a cure can influence how effective it is for the patient, a new study shows. The findings could affect the way doctors and patients communicate.

Subtle facial cues can indicate to medical patients whether their doctor believes in a treatment process, and influence how effective the treatment is, a new study shows. 

This is according to research carried out by Dartmouth College and published in the medical trade journal Nature Human Behaviour this week. While past research has demonstrated the effects of patient expectations on pain perception and healing, researchers wanted to see what effect the doctor's expectations have.

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In the first phase of a two-part study, researchers placed electrodes on the underarms of test subjects designated to play the role of "doctor." Researchers heated up the electrodes, creating sensations of pain. Test subjects were then presented with a cream called "Thermedol" that researchers claimed was clinically proven to have strong pain-relieving properties. In reality, the cream was a placebo and had no such properties. The test subjects applied the cream and immediately experienced feelings of relief. In fact, researchers were manually decreasing the temperature of the electrodes, creating a false sense of Thermedol's effectiveness.

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In the second phase, the "doctors" themselves offered either Thermedol or a control cream to test subjects playing the "patients" in a similar experimental setting. These subjects found Thermedol to be more effective than the control cream, despite there being no difference between the two.

Thermedol beat the control cream not only in patients' comments but also in an analysis of their facial expressions as well as how their skin reacted. Patients also rated the doctors who used Thermedol as more empathetic.

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Researchers point to subtle, unintentional facial cues from the doctor as an explanation for why patients experienced greater relief. Video footage taken during the experiment shows small differences in doctors' expressions depending on which cream they were recommending.  This nonverbal communication gave away their feelings about the treatment.

When patients believed the doctor and found them empathetic, this also resulted in further changes in doctors' facial expressions throughout the interaction. 

The study concludes that mindset and behavior can influence patient perceptions of their treatment and its effectiveness.

Two independent samples have confirmed the study's findings. Researchers hope this information can improve communication between doctors and patients.

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