Research shows that doctors who offer empathic and positive messages can reduce a patient’s pain, improve their recovery after surgery and lower the amount of morphine they need. But it doesn’t mean that telling a patient something simple, such as “this drug will make you feel better”, will have an effect. It’s more complicated than that, as our latest research shows.
Positive messages are usually repeated, definite, specific and personal. They should also be communicated by an authority figure who shows empathy (see graphic below). While our study does not identify what the most effective components of a positive message are (the sample was too small), the results imply that, for example, a positive message that is not specific or personalised, and is delivered by a doctor perceived to lack authority and empathy, will not have the desired effect.
What does all this mean for digitally assisted consultations ranging from telephone appointments to “carebots” (artificially intelligent robots delivering healthcare)? This is an important question to answer since carebots are being proposed as a cost-effective way to deal with the need to keep up with care for the increasing elderly populations in the UK and elsewhere.
The pandemic has accelerated the use of digitally assisted consultations, with the UK health secretary, Matt Hancock, claiming that patients won’t want to go back to face-to-face consultations after the pandemic. Online consultations are different from carebot consultations, but the trend away from human-to-human interaction can’t be denied. They have also both been rolled out too fast for ethical frameworks to be developed.
Technical and ethical problems
Adopting the evidence that positive messages help patients in the digital age is both technically and ethically problematic. While some of the components of a positive message (“this drug will make you