Docs Share Patients' Pain and Relief

When patients go through the pains and reliefs of illness and healing, their physicians do as well, according to a study that revealed doctors truly feel their patient's pain.

When patients go through the pains and reliefs of illness and healing, their physicians do as well. A new study revealed that brain scans indicated doctors truly can feel their patients’ pain.

The findings from Harvard researchers were published in Molecular Psychiatry on Tuesday. The researchers took brain scans of physicians who believed they were treating patients. Throughout the test, physicians activated the part of the brain implicated in the placebo response.

The researchers first administered a dose of “heat pain” to the physicians while they underwent fMRI scans to gauge their threshold and see which brain regions were activating. The physicians were “treated” with a fake device to alleviate the pain.

Then, the participating physicians met with patients and administered examinations to establish a realistic rapport. This meeting and examination was followed by a questionnaire “used to measure the participant’s self-reported perspective-taking skills,” according to the Harvard Gazette.

The physicians went back into the fMRI with a remote for the sham device. Through mirrors, they were able to maintain eye contact with the patients. The physicians were told either

to

press the remote control’s button to relieve the patient’s pain or not. Patients not given relief registered pain on their faces, which the physicians witnessed. When patients were treated, they were relaxed.

“We already know that the physician-patient relationship provides solace and can even relieve many symptoms,” senior author Ted Kaptchuk, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard, told the Harvard Gazette. “Now, for the first time, we’ve shown that caring for patients encompasses a unique neurobiology in physicians. Our ultimate goal is to transform the ‘art of medicine’ into the ‘science of care,’ and this research is an important first step in this process as we continue investigations to find out how patient-clinician interactions can lead to measurable clinical outcomes in patients.”

Before the study, the researchers hypothesized that a physician’s perspective-taking skills would influence the outcomes. The physicians who were better able to empathize with the patients’ feelings experienced higher satisfaction during the treatments — they were more likely to show brain activity during the test in the area associated with reward.

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Doctors Can Feel Their Patients’ PainHarvard Gazette