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Doctor’s reassurance can make patients feel better, study finds

A new study by Stanford researchers finds patients' allergic reactions dissipated more quickly when they were offered assurance by a doctor.

A good word can go a long way — especially when that word is from your doctor.

A new study by Stanford researchers suggests that reassurance from a health care provider can make patients feel better.

The paper, published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, is the latest work from Stanford psychologist Alia Crum, PhD, on how patient mindsets can affect health outcomes and healing. In a recent Stanford News article, Crum, who is the senior author, said:

Going to the doctor is largely a psychological experience… Often we simply want to be reassured that what we are experiencing is ‘normal’ and will go away. And yet, the response we often get is complicated diagnoses, expensive medications and added uncertainty, all of which may not only fail to harness psychological aspects in healing but may actually generate mindsets that could make us feel worse.

To explore this phenomenon, Crum’s experiment examined reactions from 76 participants who each received a histamine skin prick. The test, a baseline to diagnose allergies, can cause swelling, rashes and itching.

The participants were asked to rate their itchiness on a scale of 0 to 100 at five intervals following the skin prick. At the six-minute mark, half were assured by a health care provider that “from this point forward your allergic reaction will start to diminish, and your rash and irritation will go away.” The other half received no such assurance.

The Stanford News article describes the results:

The researchers found that when the health care provider offered a few assuring words, the feeling of itchiness declined significantly faster than in participants who were given no explanation about their reaction or recovery.

The biggest difference was 3 minutes after the brief intervention, at 9 minutes in. Assured participants reported their itchiness at an average of 20.19, compared to the control group who rated their irritation at almost 29, on average. The researchers saw that the difference between the two conditions was somewhat maintained over time, but shrank as the overall reaction got less itchy.

The findings not only underscore the importance patients place on what a physician says, but also explore the power of words to achieve a placebo effect — even without an accompanying inert treatment, such as a sugar pill, said graduate student Kari Leibowitz, who is the study's lead author. She said:

Our experiences talking to both patients and physicians suggest that we know that physician assurance, by itself, is powerful and can make people feel better, but there is surprisingly little empirical work to back that up.

Photo by sydney Rae

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