I have many childhood memories of my mother coming to my rescue when I was sick. She was always there with one remedy or another: vitamin C, chicken soup (Jewish penicillin,) a cool washcloth on my feverish forehead or a hot saltwater gargle to soothe my sore throat.
Most of these “therapies” would fall under the “placebo” category. There is scant scientific evidence to support them, and she was generally using them on viral cold and flu infections for which there are no medically accepted cures. Regardless, my mother still interrogates me every time I am sick to make sure I am doing all of the above. And scientific evidence notwithstanding, I always miss my mom when I am not feeling well.
In my book on The Psychology of Spas & Wellbeing, I argued that some of the healing benefits of spas come not so much from the specific therapy or treatment being applied, but simply from being in the hands of a nurturing healer.
I’ve talked about this before in my article on “Effect of Person” when I mentioned research that showed a massage chair is more enjoyable when it is flipped on by a person than when it starts automatically. Or in my talk on “In Defense of Pampering” I tell the story of a medical assistant in a maternity ward who (against the advice of his supervising physicians) would show tender concern for the expecting mothers on his wing. The doctors were surprised to learn that the deliveries were going much smoother with the women under his care (less complications, less drugs, and higher birth weight,) and they began advocating having nurturing Doulas in modern maternity wards.
Ted Kaptchuk at Harvard University tested some of these ideas on irritable bowel syndrome sufferers. He found that patients showed improvement from “sham” or fake acupuncture treatments, but only if the therapists were caring and empathic. If the treatment was performed by a brusque and uncommunicative technician, the placebo effect went right out the window. There is something beyond the “placebo effect” at play here. Kaptchuk calls it the “care effect.”
This is where I think our other healing institutions can learn from the world of spas. Spas are the only healing institutions in modern society that make people feel good, while making them feel well. And how people feel seems to matter to how they respond to treatment.
Nathanel Johnson, the author of a new book on alternative medicine (All Natural*: *A Skeptic’s Quest to Discover If the Natural Approach to Diet, Childbirth, Healing, and the Environment Really Keeps Us Healthier and Happier) says this “care effect” explains much of the appeal of alternative healers who “tend to express empathy, to allow for unhurried silences, and to ask what meaning patients make of their pain.” A far cry from the busy doctor who coldly scribbles out a prescription before rushing off to his next patient only a few minutes later.
“Nurturing is no replacement for science,” said Johnson. “Care won’t shrink a tumor or set a broken bone. But mainstream medicine could stand to learn something important about caring. . . Suffering people reflexively seek care.”
When we are sick, we want to not only be treated but to feel looked after. Sometimes the care is more important than the treatment. As Johnson says, “many patients who really need empathy and advice are instead given drugs and surgery.” We waste $210 billion annually on overtreatment when a kind word and a warm heart might have sufficed.
Like many Americans (and particularly those with small children,) I spent most of the last few months fighting off one flu bug or another. But when I get sick, I’m not a big believer in the latest fads in cold medication or going to the doctor and throwing my money away on an antibiotic. There’s still nothing that seems to work better than a nice bowl of chicken soup, and hearing my mother tell me that everything is going to be all right.
References and recommended reading: