Study: Doctor’s Empathy May Help Cure Cold Faster

MADISON, Wis.—Some cold medicines will shave a day off your suffering from the common cold, but they often produce unpleasant side effects.
A new study shows, for the first time, that the doctor’s empathy may be an even better way to speed recovery.

People recover from the common cold faster if they believe their doctor shows greater compassion toward their illness, according to a University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health study, published in the July issue of Family Medicine.

The study, conducted in primary care clinics in southern Wisconsin,  involved 350 participants who had one of three types of encounters with doctors: no interaction at all, a standard encounter with discussion of medical history and present illness, or an advanced interaction where the doctor asked more questions and seemed to show more concern for the patient.


Patients then rated doctors on a questionnaire which asked if the doctor made them feel at ease, allowed them to tell their story, listened to what they had to say, understood their concerns, acted positive, explained things clearly, helped them take control, and helped them create a plan of action.
The 84 patients who gave their doctors perfect scores on the survey were able to get rid of their cold a full day sooner than patients who gave their doctors lower scores, according to the study findings.

By measuring immune cells in secretions from nasal washes, researchers also found that patients who gave doctors perfect survey scores had built up immunity to their cold within 48 hours after their first visit.

“This shows if you perceive your doctor as empathetic, that might influence your immune system and help you recover faster from the common cold,” said Dr. David Rakel, director of integrative medicine and lead author of the study. “Out of everything that’s been studied—zinc, vitamin C, anti-viral medications—nothing has worked better at fighting a cold than being kind to people.”

“The key here is that the patient has to perceive the doctor as empathetic,” he added. “Someone may be perceived as empathetic by one person but not the other. The individual needs to find the clinician with whom they believe they can form an ongoing therapeutic relationship. This also stresses the importance of relationship primary care, where each individual develops a collaboration and relationship with a clinician they trust over time.”

Rakel said more positive interactions with doctors may encourage patients to depend less on over-the-counter cold remedies.

“Cold medications reduce the duration of a common cold, but they have serious side effects such as nausea and gastro-intestinal upset,” he said. “Being kind to people has no side effects and may actually enhance other aspects of life. The patient may go home and treat their partner better because of that clinical encounter.”

Rakel said the idea of using positive reinforcement when dealing with patients is now being used at UW in educating future doctors.

“We’re trying to create an understanding in our medical students that they can have a positive effect with whatever they prescribe based on how they relate to another human being,” he said. “This isn’t about trickery. It’s about activating the body’s healing mechanisms.”

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