Killing it with kindness

I had a call the other day form a volunteer who wanted to tell me how much he enjoyed the experience of being a marshal and the whole atmosphere of the vaccination centre. He was buzzing with excitement. Then he told me that he had been vaccinated that day.

I have written previously about the placebo effect and am not suggesting for one moment that the vaccine is one. But from personal experience and from observing so many who have been vaccinated, the effect is powerful. The immediate feeling of wellbeing and freedom is striking. There can be little doubt that this feeling influences the effectiveness of the vaccine preparing the body to make antibodies.

A placebo is an exact replica of a pill or medication in appearance but made of an inert substance. In drug trials it is administered as a double blind test; neither the doctor nor the patient knows whether the pill is the real drug or the fake.

Suppose you are part of a trial and given a placebo which requires you to take just one tablet every morning. Each morning as you rush about normal chores you quickly grab the pill and swallow it without too much thought. No act of commitment or ritual to it. A simple momentary interruption in the normal ritual but after some days or weeks you are cured. You believed in the drug so subconsciously something profound has been happening in your physiology. A few seconds each morning as you took the pill confirmed that belief.

This placebo effect is intriguing. In recent years fewer drugs have proven successful in clinical trials because of changes to the method of use of placebos. Sometimes the effect so powerful that there may be little difference between it and the curative effect of the real medication being trialled.

This is because another dimension has been added to trials. One group of patients, receiving either placebo or real pill, is administered by an abrupt doctor who just tells them the facts and directions without emotion or empathy.

The other group is treated by a caring empathetic doctor who gives guidance and supportive advice about their condition. In such a test the placebo is even more effective.

So if the doctor who gave your pill three weeks ago was kind and caring, that single act of kindness is still working at an even deeper level within you, intensifying the momentary act each day of taking the pill.

There is however another dimension; the nocebo effect. This means that if the doctor giving a medication says that it will have unpleasant side effects, it is more likely to have them. Before being vaccinated we are warned of minor side effects which are common. But if a reaction to the vaccine injection is a sign of it working, perhaps even now the nocebo effect is a positive one.

Everyone who has been present at a vaccination centre recounts what a great feeling there is. Patients, marshals, doctors and nurses and of course those being vaccinated. It is the perfect environment for care and of course the ‘drug’ it is not a placebo. No wonder it is over 90% effective. Everyone present is adding a little bit to the power of the vaccination programme.

This deep feeling of kindness and hope must have a lasting effect on everyone present and on our community. How can we build on this?

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