The Caring Effect

Patients with irritable bowel syndrome were told they'd be participating in a study of the benefits of a acupuncture—and one group, which received the treatment from a warm, friendly researcher who asked detailed questions about their lives, did report a marked reduction in symptoms, equivalent to what might result from any drug on the market. Unbeknokwnst to them, the researchers used trick needles that didn’t pierce the skin.

Now here’s the interesting part. The same sham treatment was given to another group of subjects—but performed brusquely, without conversation. The benefits largely disappeared. It was the empathetic exchange between paractictioner and patient. Kaptchuk concluded, that made the difference.

What Kaptchuk demonstrated is what some medical thinkers have begun to call the “care effect”—the idea that the opportunity for patients to feel heard and cared for can improve their health. Scientific or no, alternative practitioners tend to express empathy, to allow for unhurried silences, and to ask what the meaning patients make of their pain. Kaptchuk’s study was a breakthrough: It showed that randomized, controlled trials could measure the effect of caring.

Nathanael Johnson, Writing in Wired magazine