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Doctors urged to show more empathy for better patient outcomes

Photo: Doctors 'need to bring hearts to work
Kind and compassionate doctors have healthier patients who are more likely to follow their advice, says Hearts in Healthcare co-founder.

Before Dr Robin Youngson had to anaesthetise a heavily pregnant woman for a caesarean to deliver her dead baby, he shed tears with her.

"That is completely unprofessional behaviour, that would be seriously criticised and not a way to behave as a doctor," he told AAP.

But the woman later told him it had made an enormous difference to her to have a doctor who cared and was distressed by her circumstances.

Dr Youngson, NZ co-founder of the organisation Hearts in Healthcare, said compassionate doctors are linked to better health outcomes for patients.

He was speaking ahead of his Wednesday address to the annual scientific meeting of the Australia and New Zealand College of Anaesthetists in Auckland.
He says patients who are treated with compassion trust their doctors and are more likely to follow advice, take their medication and adopt healthy lifestyles.

They also are less likely to need pain relief and hospital care following surgery, he says.

"The problem with medical culture is that we are not really taught to treat patients, we are taught to manage disease.

"The role model is a heroic character with no feelings, never to show emotion, to kind of be detached."

He cited a number of studies, including a 1964 US randomised trial in which half the patients had a standard pre-surgery briefing from a cool and detached anaesthetist while the others had a warm and supportive talk.

After surgery, patients in the second group needed only half the morphine of the control group and were discharged on average three days sooner.

"If a new, cheap and safe drug could halve opiate requirements after major surgery and substantially reduce patients' length of stay without any adverse effects, wouldn't we adopt it?" Dr Youngson said.

Medical training ought to teach students the skills they needed to conduct empathetic consultations and a new type of role model was needed, he said.

"It's very hard to change the system - they need to bring their heart to work," he said.

* The writer travelled to Auckland courtesy of the ANZCA.

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