How a Doctor's Kind Words can Help Patients Heal Faster

A recent study shows that encouraging words about recovery time from physicians reduced the symptoms of patients.


(Red Moccasin /

A recent study at Stanford University showed that kind and encouraging words from a doctor reduced the recovery time of patients. Significant research has been performed on how the placebo effect can actually make a patient feel better.  Placebos work because a patient expects them to.

In the Stanford press release, Kari Leibowitz a graduate student who was the lead author of the research paper explained that “research on the placebo effect has long shown the importance and power of a physician’s words: When a physician gives people an inert treatment, such as a sugar pill, and tells them it will help them feel better, that pill is often effective." This has commonly been thought to be the result of positive thinking. The recent study now asked whether a doctor's reassurance is enough to cause the effect.

The researchers, led by Alia Crum, an assistant professor at Stanford University's School of Humanities and Sciences, explored how a patient's frame of mind can affect health outcomes and healing without any other medical intervention. This study was very different than previous studies about the placebo effect.  

The way the researchers tested a physician's assurance on patient symptoms was to set up an experiment with 76 study participants. The participants were given a histamine skin prick – the same small skin pricks that are used for allergy testing – to produce an allergic reaction. A minor histamine reaction consists of swelling at the site, rashes, and itching.  

Three minutes after the skin prick, the participants were asked by a physician to rate their symptoms on a scale of zero to 100. This was repeated 9, 12, 15, and 18 minutes after the prick.

Six minutes after the participants received the prick, the physician came in to check on the participants. Half of the group received kind, assuring news from the doctor, who told them that "from this point forward your allergic reaction will start to diminish, and your rash and irritation will go away." The other half was the control group and was not offered any kind of reassurance.

The results showed that three minutes after the physician spoke to them, the study participants felt significantly less itchy than the control group. After nine minutes, itchiness declined in both groups. The researchers saw that the difference between the two groups was somewhat maintained over time but shrank as both groups became less itchy. This effect was achieved without offering any medication or other treatment for the allergic reactions.

According to the study, the results provide empirical support that reassuring a patient who consults a physician for minor complaints may assist in alleviating symptoms. The study concluded that "Physician assurance is a component of medical care that is surely familiar to physicians, yet is under-researched and often under-appreciated. Although meeting with patients for issues not ultimately requiring medication or treatment may be seen as costly or unnecessary from a health economics perspective, this study highlights the critical yet rarely quantified healing effect of visits in which the physician’s sole role is to assure patients they will soon feel better."

This study is a very positive first step. “My hope is that findings like this one inspire additional research on the physiological mechanisms of assurance as well as promote training and compensation for physicians to more effectively leverage psychological forces in their practice,” Crum concluded.

For Leibowitz, the study validates her belief that interpersonal interactions are central to what it means to practice medicine saying. "I hope the system will change to reflect and value things like providing reassurance and setting positive expectations as part of good medicine,” she said.

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