The patient–physician relationship is essential for treatment success. Previous studies demonstrated that physicians who behave empathic in their interaction with patients have a positive effect on health outcomes. In this study, we investigated if the mere perception of physicians as empathic/not empathic modulates pain despite an emotionally neutral interaction with the patients.
N = 60 women took part in an experimental study that simulated a clinical interaction. In the paradigm, each participant watched two immersive 360° videos via a head-mounted display from a patient’s perspective. The physicians in the videos behaved either empathic or not empathic towards a third person. Importantly, these physicians remained emotionally neutral in the subsequent virtual interaction with the participants. Finally, participants received a controlled, painful pressure stimulus within the narratives of the videos.
The physicians in the high compared with the low empathy videos were rated as more empathic and more likable, indicating successful experimental manipulation. In spite of later neutral behaviour of physicians, this short observation of physicians’ behaviour towards a third person was sufficient to modulate pain tolerance of the participants.
The finding of this study that the mere observation of physicians’ behaviour towards a third person modulates pain, despite a neutral direct interaction with the participants, has important clinical implications. Further, the proposed paradigm enables investigating aspects of patient–physician communication that are difficult to examine in a clinical setting.