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How a little compassion can improve doctors' and patients' lives

Most everyone would prefer a doctor who displays empathy, support and kindness over one who is all business. That's particularly true if we're dealing with a serious medical issue or are simply anxious and uncertain about our health and our future.

Even a brief display of compassion can be reassuring. In fact, one study found that patients who had such an interaction with a doctor for just 40 seconds had measurably lower anxiety levels.

Another study by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School indicates that such displays of empathy are also good for those who provide them. In fact, they even make them feel like they have more time.

One doctor who co-authored a book on the benefits of compassion says that these findings are particularly important for physicians. He notes that while over half of doctors reported that they don't have time for displays of empathy, "[t]he evidence shows that when you invest time in other people, you actually feel that you have more time, or that you're not so much in a hurry....So when 56 percent say they don't have time in that survey, it's probably all in their heads."

The doctor says evidence has shown that physicians who connect with their patients are happier and less likely to suffer from burnout than those who don't. That contradicts what many medical students are taught -- that getting too close to suffering patients can lead to exhaustion. He says, "We've always heard that burnout crushes compassion. It's probably more likely that those people with low compassion, those are the ones that are predisposed to burnout."

Showing doctors the science behind the finding helped, according to the study. Researchers reported that after learning about the neuroscience of empathy, doctors' empathy ratings among their patients improved.

When Mississippi patients and family members find a doctor easy to talk to and feel some level of compassion from them, they're typically more likely to share their concerns and ask questions. This can lead to a more accurate diagnosis and better overall care. However, even if you don't get a warm, fuzzy feeling from your doctor, it's essential not to hesitate to speak up and to be an advocate for proper medical care for yourself or a loved one.

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