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A Doctor's 'People Skills' Affect Patients' Health

Comfortable relationship can be as beneficial as statins for heart problems, study finds

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In most of the trials, though not all, patients seemed to benefit. Obese and diabetic patients tended to lose more weight, arthritis patients reported less pain, and people with high blood pressure did a better job of lowering their numbers.

Those effects were "modest" overall, Riess and colleagues found. But the magnitude of the benefit was similar to what's been seen in studies testing low-dose aspirin or cholesterol-lowering statins for preventing heart attack, according to the new research.

"That's important because aspirin and statins are widely prescribed, and everyone agrees they should be used to reduce the risk of heart attack," Riess said.

It's not clear, she added, exactly why the trials in this review found benefits: Is it the improved empathy, or the motivational interview technique, for example?

And of course, individuals differ in what they consider a "good" relationship with their doctor, Christensen noted.

"People clearly differ in how much information they want," he said. "Some people want greater self-management, and see it as having more control. Some people see it as a burden. Some people like being asked about their personal life, beyond their health condition. Some don't."

But the bottom line, Christensen and Riess both said, is that the provider-patient relationship matters.

"Patients need to understand that it's OK to look for a doctor who meets your preferences and expectations," Christensen said.

Or, since finding a new doctor can be tough, Riess suggested talking to your current doctor.

"If you're unhappy, there are polite ways to speak up," she said. "Patients should feel empowered to say, 'I didn't understand that language you used. Can you explain it in laymen's terms?' You can tell (your doctor) if you feel rushed or anxious."

And don't worry about offending your doctor, Christensen advised. He said most doctors do care, and say they try to "tailor" how they communicate to individual patients.

But if patients don't speak up, Riess noted, a doctor might not realize there's a problem.

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