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A new research project on practitioner empathy is to be made possible thanks to a grant from the British Medical Association foundation for medical research.

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The main problem is that we don’t know how doctors can express their natural empathy best, or what tools busy doctors can use to enhance this behaviour.
- Dr Jeremy Howick, University of Oxford.

Dr Jeremy Howick and Professor Paul Aveyard have this week received the Dawkins and Strutt grant to review data from a raft of existing research that has sought to enhance the treatment of pain by training doctors to appear more empathetic.

“One in five people are in pain and for many the cause of that pain is unlikely to go away,” said Dr Jeremy Howick, from the Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences Behavioural Medicine Group. “Many worry about the side effects of painkillers, particularly for long-term use. When doctors appear empathetic and deliver hopeful messages, people often feel less anxious about the cause of pain and its future course. This leads the brain to release natural painkillers, such as endorphins.”

However, there are a number of barriers preventing this approach from being employed as standard practice by health professionals. “The main problem is that we don’t know how doctors can express their natural empathy best, or what tools busy doctors can use to enhance this behaviour.”

By reviewing existing literature, the researchers hope to identify the key behaviours doctors need to change and also the most effective and efficient ways of training doctors to behave in this way. 

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