Empathy is often seen as a nice — but nonessential — part of medicine. Indeed, for surgeons in the operating room, seeing the patient as a human being may actually be an obstacle to successful performance. At the bedside, however, doctors who are more empathetic actually have healthier patients, according to a new study published in the journal Academic Medicine.
Researchers led by Mohammadreza Hojat of Jefferson Medical College followed 891 patients with diabetes treated by 29 doctors for three years. The doctors were scored for empathy based on a measure that looked primarily at how much they understood their patient’s perspective and how much that point of view fueled their desire to help.
(More on Time.com: “Not Mine Yet:” What Happens When Patients Are Under Nobody’s Care?)
The patients of the doctors who scored highest in this type of empathy were 16% more likely to have good control over their blood sugar and 15% more likely to have better cholesterol levels than patients of physicians with the lowest empathy scores. Prior research has found that patients of highly empathetic doctors are more likely to follow their treatment plans, which could account for these differences.
(More on Time.com: The Rich Are Different: More Money, Less Empathy)
Given the difficulty of initiating and maintaining behavior changes required to keep cholesterol and blood sugar under control, it seems that a little kindness can go a long way. Though many think tough love works best, increasing evidence favors tenderness instead — at least if you want to try to change habitual behaviors around health, diet, exercise, alcohol and other drugs.
Related link: Why College Students Are Short on Empathy