Talking to Patients More Successful than Treatment Itself

Many doctors act as if their primary job is to push medication at patients while taking time to listen to them is a luxury they can't afford. The dozens of women who have shared their stories on this blog show the problems this sort of mindset creates. It doesn't help a patient to shove the wrong drugs at them because you didn't listen to their symptoms and properly diagnose their condition.

But what if taking the time to have a conversation with your patient, in and of itself, could be more successful at treating their illness than the treatment itself? That's what a new study suggests, and it's fascinating.

In 2014, researchers in Canada did an interesting study about the role of communication in the treatment of chronic back pain. Half the patients in the study received mild electrical stimulation from physical therapists, and half received sham stimulation (all the equipment is set up, but the electrical current is never activated). Sham treatment — placebo — worked reasonably well: These patients experienced a 25 percent reduction in their levels of pain. The patients who got the real stimulation did even better, though; their pain levels decreased by 46 percent. So the treatment itself does work.
Each of these groups was further divided in half. One half experienced only limited conversation from the physical therapist. With the other half, the therapists asked open-ended questions and listened attentively to the answers. They expressed empathy about the patients’ situation and offered words of encouragement about getting better.
Patients who underwent sham treatment but had therapists who actively communicated reported a 55 percent decrease in their pain. This is a finding that should give all medical professionals pause: Communication alone was more effective than treatment alone. The patients who got electrical stimulation from engaged physical therapists were the clear winners, with a 77 percent reduction in pain.

Read the full story at The New York Times.