Suzette Martinez Standring: Kindness heals

Suzette Martinez Standring

A compassionate attitude - gentle words, a listening ear, and encouragement – is an agent for physical healing, even if the concern is faked, according to a recent Harvard study. Research affirms that old-fashioned kindness is a balm on one’s spirit, and in turn, has measurable effects on the body.

The placebo effect is a mysterious phenomenon long accepted in science, that is, a percentage of patients do experience improved medical conditions when receiving fake treatments they believe to be real. What causes it? Can placebo power be harnessed, or it’s positive effects increased? Over the past 15 years, such possibilities were explored by Ted Kaptchuk, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard, and colleagues who examined the potential components to placebo healing through a series of studies.

Now there is scientific proof that compassion can set the healing wheels in motion. Collaborating with gastroenterologists in the early 2000s, Kaptchuk set up a study of 262 patients with irritable bowel syndrome who were offered acupuncture treatments. However, fake needles that retracted on contact were used on all participants. Instead of comparing the effects of real versus sham treatments, the study focused on whether the quality of patient interaction made a difference. 

Participants were divided into three groups. Those in the control group were told they were on a waiting list, and received no treatment. The second group was given acupuncture in an impersonal manner. The third group treated also experienced at least 20 minutes with the acupuncturist who gave every appearance of genuine concern; warm conversation, caring touches on the arm or shoulder, a hopeful outlook and thoughtful responses to questions.

Recently reported results show patients in the third group recorded the greatest relief. The act of caring made a measurable difference. These and other findings from related studies were reported in The Placebo Phenomenon in the January/February 2013 issue of Harvard Magazine. Reporter Cara Feinberg wrote, But in an age of rushed doctor’s visits and packed waiting rooms, it was the first study to show a “dose-dependent response” for a placebo: the more care people got – even if it was fake – the better they tended to fare.

How a doctor interacts with a patient has profound implications for health care. Yet in everyday life, one on one, each of us is an agent for healing. Taking the time to show concern - and apparently only twenty minutes is needed - can have a measurable impact on those whose spirits are burdened by illness or emotional damage. Often challenges can appear so great or insurmountable – illness, financial ruin, grief – leaving friends and family resigned to helplessness, “What can I do?  It’s too much for me to fix.”

Be reminded of the elements that activated physical improvement in patients involved in the placebo study: time spent giving every appearance of genuine concern; warm conversation, caring touches on the arm or shoulder, a hopeful outlook, and thoughtful responses to questions. Isn’t this what we intuitively do for those we love? The Harvard study points to curative possibilities beyond the hospital waiting room.

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