Health workers rely on positive non-verbal communication to show care for their patients: close physical proximity, touch, head nodding, smiling, open body language and a focused eye gaze. It’s such an important part of the work they do, that the world’s largest nursing body, the UK’s Royal College of Nursing, has a section of its website dedicated to the importance of body language.
A doctor or nurse’s body language sets the trajectory for treatment from the moment the patient first sees them. Positive non-verbal communication has been shown to decrease patient anxiety and give better outcomes. And it gives the patient confidence that a physician is sensitive and understanding. As a result, the patient is more trusting and communicative.
Even with pain, patients who get high non-verbal support from their physicians show increased tolerance. Doctors’ detachment and distancing behavior — such as the absence of smiling and direct eye-gaze — has the opposite effect and is linked to worse patient outcomes. A recent study of 719 patients with the common cold found that the more empathic they perceived their doctor to be — the faster they recovered. Each patient was asked to score the doctor for empathy shown to them on a 1-10 scale. Those who scored the doctor a perfect 10 (around a third of patients) had reduced severity of symptoms, recovered faster and also had higher immune function, about 50% better than others.
Face coverings significantly limit a doctor’s ability to gauge a patient’s emotions. The masks can hamper health care workers’ attempts to provide non-verbal support to people in their care.
Not only that, imagine being alone in hospital, very ill and afraid, and the faces of the doctors around you are almost unrecognizable. This is the reality for so many in the Covid-19 pandemic. CNN explores the science behind facial expressions and why they’re so key to human interaction.