To examine the importance of physician compassion to breast cancer patients making treatment decisions, this study used an experimental design to address the following study questions:
(1) Can perceptions of physician compassion be easily varied?
(2) Does physician compassion influence patients’ anxiety levels?
(3) Does physician compassion increase information recall?
(4) Does hypothetical treatment choice vary according to physician compassion?
(5) Does physician compassion influence perceptions of other physician attributes related to the physician-patient relationship?
In this study, we use the Webster’s dictionary definition of compassion as “sympathetic concern for the suffering of another, together with the inclination to give aid or support or to show mercy.
Can 40 Seconds of Compassion Reduce Patient Anxiety?
PURPOSE: To use a standardized videotape stimulus to assess the effect of physician compassion on viewers’ anxiety, information recall, treatment decisions, and assessment of physician characteristics.
PARTICIPANTS AND METHODS: One hundred twenty-three healthy female breast cancer survivors and 87 women without cancer were recruited for this study. A randomized pretest control group design with a standardized videotape intervention was used. Participants completed the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory (STAI), an information recall test, a compassion rating, and physician attribute rating scales.
RESULTS: Women who saw an “enhanced compassion” videotape rated the physician as warmer and more caring, sensitive, and compassionate than did women who watched the “standard” videotape. Women who saw the enhanced compassion videotape were significantly less anxious after watching it than the women in the other group.
CONCLUSION: The enhanced compassion segment was short, simple, and effective in decreasing viewers’ anxiety. Further research is needed to translate these findings to the clinical setting, where reducing patient anxiety is a therapeutic goal.
… and as I left his office, he said, “you know, you have a very bad disease, but we are going to take care of you.” The doctor-patient relationship was incredibly therapeutic and reassuring. I had no qualms, no doubts with putting my life in his hands. I had full confidence in his expertise, his concern and emotional support.— Breast cancer survivor
Additionally, evidence suggests that a breast cancer patient’s perceptions of her physician’s behavior during the diagnostic consultation may influence her long-term psychological adjustment. One could also speculate that a patient’s anxiety during the initial consultation might undermine the foundation of the new physician-patient relationship.
Reducing anxiety during the consultation, therefore, may lead to better patient understanding, a stronger physician-patient relationship, and, ultimately, enhanced patient well-being.
Little research has been devoted to identifying methods to reduce patients’ anxiety during the medical consultation. However, substantial evidence suggests that provision of information may play a role. For example, in a review of 34 intervention studies to increase patients’ psychosocial and informational preparedness, benefits of increased preparedness (for example, reductions in pain and use of analgesics, and an average 2-day reduction in hospital stay) were found in 85% of the studies.
Communication style and its effects on patients provide strong indirect support for the link between physician compassion and enhanced patient outcomes. A recent review of 21 studies of physician-patient communication found relationships between the quality of communication and several patient outcomes, such as increased physical function and emotional health and decreased physical symptoms and pain.
One study found that breast cancer patients who rated more favorably their physicians’ behavior during the diagnostic interview (eg, “the doctor understood my fears,” “the doctor was warm and caring,” “I was given information”) had significantly better psychological adjustment 6 months after breast cancer surgery.
Participants rated the physician’s compassion using a semantic differential format containing five pairs of physician characteristics. The characteristics were warm/cold, pleasant/unpleasant, compassionate/distant, sensitive/insensitive, and caring/uncaring. The paired physician characteristics were presented together, separated by a 10-cm line. For example, “warm” was the left anchor of the line, and cold was the right anchor. Participants were instructed to “please let us know what you thought of the physician in the video by putting an X on the line closest to the appropriate characteristic.