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Doctor's Compassion May Help Cure Colds Faster

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Doctor and patient; Research by UW School of Medicine and Public Health Suggests Doctor's Compassion May Help Cure Colds FasterMADISON – 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.

The key here is that the patient has to perceive the doctor as empathetic. 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. 

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. 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.

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

Date Published: 07/08/2009

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