What's the Least Expensive Drug a Doctor Can Offer?

Stanford researchers say it's natural and takes little time and few resources.

Posted Jan 24, 2019

Patricia Prijatel
Source: Patricia Prijatel

Attitude matters, docs. Two Stanford researchers, writing in The New York Times, provide evidence that a doctor's caring manner can actually help patients heal. Social psychologists Lauren C. Howe and Kari Leibowitz explain that even small actions can have significant patient benefits. 

One study they conducted demonstrated that, when a doctor says something encouraging, patients report feeling better. And the comment can take only a few seconds. In their study, the doctor had given the patient a skin prick to test for allergies and, afterward, said, “From this point forward, your allergic reaction will start to diminish, and your rash and irritation will go away." Patients who heard these calming words said their reactions itched less. Howe and Leibowitz write:

This tells us that a physician’s words might be more powerful than we normally realize... In fact, provider words influence the efficacy of even our most powerful drugs and treatments.

In other research, they studied the reactions of people visiting two different kinds of doctors, again for allergies through a skin prick test. One doctor was indifferent, busy, and impersonal, the other was caring. The former remained focused on her computer and on data, the latter made eye contact, smiled, chatted a bit, and called the patient by name. Both doctors then gave the patients what they said was an antihistamine cream, but which really was just unscented body lotion, a placebo. According to Howe and Leibowitz:

Our study revealed that the placebo cream reduced participants’ allergic reactions only when the provider projected warmth and competence. When the provider acted colder and less competent, the placebo cream had no effect. It seems that it’s not just what the doctor says about a treatment that matters. It matters how the doctor who says it engages with patients. Doctors who are warmer and more competent are able to set more powerful expectations about medical treatments. Those positive expectations, in turn, have a measurable impact on health.

Howe and Leibowitz note that the behaviors they tested, such as building rapport and exuding warmth as well as competence, take no extra time and don't add pressure to the doctor's schedule. They conclude:

We often think the only parts of medical care that really matter are the “active” ingredients of medicine: the diagnosis, prognosis and treatment. But focusing only on these ingredients leaves important components of care underappreciated and underutilized. To really help people flourish, health care works better when it includes caring.