A doctor with a great bedside manner is often considered a nice bonus – but not a requirement – for patient care. Now, scientific research shows there are compelling reasons for physicians to develop better patient communications skills to improve both the patient experience and results.

A recent study conducted by the Psychology Department at Stanford University shows that a warm and reassuring doctor actually improves patient health. The study published in the Journal for General Internal Medicine demonstrated that the words and demeanor of a physician can powerfully influence patient health outcomes.


How physician communication impacts patient outcomes

In the study, participants experienced a faux allergic event, and then the physician treated them with a placebo cream and one of two styles of patient engagement. The only thing that differed in the experience was the doctor’s words and demeanor. Here’s what happened:

When a physician gave a short, one-sentence assurance to the patient in response to the faux allergic reaction, it significantly reduced the patients’ ratings of itchiness/irritation compared to a control group that received no assurance. This symptom improvement happened even before patients were given the placebo cream to treat the itchiness. The cream reduced the patients’ allergic reactions only when the provider projected warmth and competence. When the provider acted distant and less competent, the placebo cream had no effect.


Why this matters in healthcare now

Recent changes in our healthcare system are incentivizing doctors to improve their engagement skills with patients because their compensation and referrals are tied to patient evaluations. I have been engaged to shadow doctors and help them improve their patient communications skills. My physician clients have become better at both verbal and nonverbal communications – including learning how to read the patient’s body language to understand when patients were comfortable and when there were stress points that they needed to address. As a result, their physician survey ratings skyrocketed.

The benefit of having a doctor who communicates well and creates engagement with patients is not limited to survey ratings. As this recent study shows, the doctor’s assurance can actually positively influence the patient’s outcome. It’s a win-win for both the doctor and the patient.