New research suggests trusting and feeling socially or culturally similar to your doctor influences the pain experienced during medical procedures.
Irrespective of your age – you might be a five-year-old kid or a 50-year-old – getting a shot at your doctor’s office can be a stressful experience.
But what if you knew your doctor was from your hometown, liked the same food as you, or shared your religious beliefs? Now that you feel more culturally connected to your doctor, will the shot hurt less?
It’s a scenario posed in a new study by Dr Elizabeth Losin, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Miami College of Arts and Sciences; Steven Anderson, a University of Miami graduate student in the Department of Psychology; and Tor Wager, Ph.D., professor in the Institute of Cognitive Science at the University of Colorado Boulder. The study is entitled, “Feelings of clinician-patient similarity and trust influence pain: Evidence from simulated clinical interactions,” and it is published in the Journal of Pain, the official journal of the American Pain Society.
In Losin’s lab, she simulates clinician-patient interactions to uncover the social and cultural factors that influence the pain that patients experience during medical care. Her goal is to try and find ways to help people feel less pain when seeing the doctor and help reduce phobias about doctor visits and check-ups.
“Pain also has a psychological component as well, and it’s the interaction between the psychological and physiological aspects of pain that we’re really interested in,” she said.
Losin says that physician-patient interactions are typically fast and superficial so people often don’t actually get the time to figure out whether they have anything in common with their doctor.
“You go to the doctor’s office and you have to get a procedure that is painful and scary,” said Losin.
“We want to know how the doctor-patient dynamic, in this case how the doctor and patient perceive one another, might affect how much pain the patient feels from that painful medical procedure. If the patient feels they have something in common with their doctor, is that enough to actually change how much pain they feel?”
For her study, Losin used a modified version of a “minimal group paradigm,” which is normally used in social psychology experiments to create artificial groups in the lab based on something completely arbitrary and superficial.
This approach allows researchers to figure out the minimal conditions required for real-world intergroup behaviour, like discrimination, to occur.
In Losin’s study the groups weren’t quite so arbitrary. “We created the groups based on participants’ core personal beliefs and values, the same things that we think doctors and patients infer based on race and ethnicity in the context of medical care,” said Losin.
“We gave participants a questionnaire that asked about their political ideology, religious and gender role beliefs and practices. When they came into the lab, we separated the participants into two groups and told them they were assigned to these groups based on their questionnaire answers but not giving specifics to which question put them there.”