March 2, 2013 -- intro: Is your doctor less than friendly? It might be time to find a new one. Having an empathetic doctor can actually decrease your pain awareness, according to a new study published in Patient Education and Counseling.
Michigan State University researchers assigned nine women to one of two types of interviews with a doctor prior to an MRI brain scan. Some of the participants talked to doctors who asked only very clinical information (such as their medical history and what medications they took), while the rest talked to doctors who also asked open-ended questions about their home life and work as well as addressed any concerns they had about the upcoming procedure.
Then, the participants received mild electric shocks while looking at a photo of a doctor—either the doctor with whom they had just interviewed or one they didn't know—whom they were told was supervising the procedure. Throughout the process, MRI scans measured activity in the participants' anterior insula, the region of the brain that makes people aware of pain.
The participants whose doctors had asked them about their lives and answered their questions before the procedure experienced less anterior insula activity when they looked at a photo of their interviewing doctor than when they looked at one of an unknown doctor. They also reported feeling less pain from the shocks and being more satisfied with their doctors than the participants who had interviewed with strictly clinical doctors.
Previous research has shown that patients who have empathetic doctors have better health outcomes, but this is the first study to explain why, says lead researcher Issidoros Sarinopoulos, Ph.D., a professor of radiology at Michigan State University.
"The degree to which patients develop a positive relationship with their doctors determines how their brains react to stress and experience pain," Sarinopoulos says. That relationship influences how the body recovers, and can affect your health. "Patients should pay attention to how their doctor makes them feel and recognize empathy as a desirable characteristic in a physician," Sarionopoulos adds.
Still, empathy's not the only quality to look for in a doc. Here, 5 additional traits all good doctors should have:
quicklist: 1 category: Traits to Look for in a Doctor title: He Takes His Time url: text: Faster isn't always better. It takes time to listen to, diagnose, and prescribe the best treatment—and sometimes the 17 minutes the average doctor spends doing the job just doesn't cut it.
You should leave your appointment with answers to all of your questions, says Richard Klein, M.D., author of Surviving Your Doctors: Why the Medical System Is Dangerous to Your Health and How to Get Through It Alive. If you feel your physician is trying to push you through your visits in warp-speed time, consider looking for one who has fewer patients, he says.
quicklist: 2 category: Traits to Look for in a Doctor title: She's Well-Rested url: text: It's no secret: A sleepless night clouds next-day judgment. You want your doc to always be alert and well rested.
If she's constantly yawning or has horrendous circles under her eyes, you might want look elsewhere, says Charles Christopher Landrigan, M.D., director of the Sleep and Patient Safety Program at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. Remember: It's within your rights as a patient to ask if your doctor is rested.
quicklist: 3 category: Traits to Look for in a Doctor title: He's up-to-date on the latest research url: text: Doogie might be the best doc, after all.
"If you're getting a procedure involving a laproscope, robot, or other new technique, the doctor who just finished his or her training could be your best bet," says Janet Pregler, M.D., director of the Iris Cantor-UCLA Women's Health Center.
When it comes to your general practitioner, who won't be performing newfangled tests or procedures, mid-career doctors have a good balance of current knowledge and work experience. Check out your local teaching hospital: Physicians who work there are regularly vetted by their peers and have to stay up-to-date to continually teach interns.
quicklist: 4 category: Traits to Look for in a Doctor title: She doesn't judge you or dismiss your concerns url: text: You should be able to talk to your doctor about your sex life, drinking habits, and anything else that can affect your health without feeling judged. If you feel she criticizes your lifestyle choices or dismisses your concerns, look for someone else, Klein says.
It could affect your treatment: A study in The Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics found that women who have the same pain symptoms as men are less likely to receive appropriate treatment because their physicians assume they are exaggerating.
quicklist: 5 category: Traits to Look for in a Doctor title: He keeps it professional url: text: While a friendly doc is great, a flirtatious one can hurt your health.
If Dr. McDreamy starts making eyes at you, you'll be less likely to bring up the vicious gas you've been battling, says Pamela F. Gallin, M.D., author of How to Survive Your Doctor's Care. Also, keep in mind that more doctors than ever are now Googling their patients, according to the Harvard Review of Psychiatry. If you hear your doctor discussing personal details you didn't divulge, ask how he got the info.
Additional reporting from Kristen Dold
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