Research highlight

Psychology: Doctors’ beliefs influence patients’ pain

Nature Human Behaviour

October 22, 2019

If healthcare providers believe in a treatment’s effectiveness, and reflect this belief in their facial expressions, their patients may experience less pain, suggests a paper published Nature Human Behaviour. This finding may influence how providers are trained to interact with patients.

Luke Chang and colleagues conducted three experiments to understand how the beliefs of hypothetical providers may affect the pain response of experimental participants acting as patients. The authors assigned 194 participants to the role of ‘doctor’ or ‘patient’, and gave each doctor two creams to administer to patients. The doctors were led to believe that one of the creams was effective in reducing pain, and that the other was a placebo. In fact, both were placebos. The authors found that when doctors administered the cream they believed to be effective, patients reported lower pain levels, expressed less pain facially, and had a significantly different skin arousal response. The authors observed that the doctors’ facial expressions were also different depending on the cream they were applying, which suggests a possible mechanism for this effect.

This finding highlights the potential importance of bedside manner in impacting patients’ treatment outcomes. The authors recommend that future research in this area investigate other contextual cues that may amplify the results reported in this study.

doi: 10.1038/s41562-019-0749-5

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