Impact Journalism Day 2016

The Hypnotist Will See You Now

Already being used as a pain management tool, Swiss experts say hypnosis may be just what the doctor ordered.

Eric Bonvin lecturing at the Romandy Hypnosis Institute, which trains 40 new experts each year.
Patrick Dutoit, SAM-CHUV

Hypnosis is increasingly being used in medical treatment, with hospitals in western Switzerland leading the way. It’s already being used on a daily basis in the large burns unit at Lausanne University Hospital, and a glance at the financial savings helps explain why.

A study carried out by the hospital has shown that hypnosis reduces the time patients are kept in intensive care units and cuts costs by 19,000 Swiss francs ($19,130) per patient. Now the hospital is keen to extend this to other departments.

“If hypnosis were a medication, it would already be in all hospitals,” says Pierre-Yves Rodondi, a doctor at the hospital’s Institute of Social and Preventive Medicine. “But it’s an approach and therefore must overcome cultural barriers.”

The management team has given Rodondi a mandate to study how best to use hypnosis. “We’re assessing in which areas to use it, and there is plenty of demand within the hospital,” he says.

People may have gained an impression of what hypnotism is based on television shows, but the reality is far different. You won’t see patients in a zombie-like state, being manipulated by magicians in white lab coats at this hospital. As a result, any patients’ fears have given way to pragmatism.

“There are scientific studies – sadly ignored by a large part of the medical community – that demonstrate the effectiveness of hypnosis in pain management: it is a tool that should be integrated into treatment. It works with almost everyone, even those who are skeptical,” says Rodondi.

Wounds healing quicker

In fact, according to the hospital’s study (which was published in the health journal Burns), hypnosis helps patients with severe burns to recover faster and it cuts the cost of therapy: it reduces anxiety, the use of drugs, the overall need for anaesthetics and, on average, cuts five days from the length of a patient’s stay in intensive care.

Given these savings, it would be sufficient to treat just nine burns victims per year by hypnosis to cover the cost of a specialist in the field.

That study – carried out on 23 severely burned people undergoing hypnosis and another group treated conventionally – yielded very positive results. For the group treated with hypnosis, pain and anxiety decreased significantly; the number of psychiatric sessions was reduced, and doses of opiates and sedatives administered to address very painful medical or surgical interventions were also reduced. Wounds healed quicker, as shown by the decrease in skin grafts applied to the hypnotized group.

“It could be related to a lower level of stress, but this is just our hypothesis,” explains Maryse Davadant, a nurse in the hospital’s intensive care unit and a pioneer in the use of hypnosis.

“On average, we start the first session a few days after the patient is admitted, when he or she is no longer intubated and unable to concentrate. Then we teach them to do self-hypnosis: this is a tool that the patient will always have, and the analgesic effect lasts even after therapy. We have two nurses in the ICU who only do hypnosis,” says Davadant.

Maryse Davadant, intensive care nurse and pioneer in hypnosis at the hospital.
Patrick Dutoit, SAM-CHUV

Hypnosis is offered to every patient, adds Davadant. And how do they react? “Some are aware of it and interested, whereas others are more skeptical – but almost everyone tries it and is satisfied,” she says.

Not all burns patients can be treated with hypnosis, though, especially elderly patients in a state of confusion or under the influence of drugs.

Humanizing medicine

Given that medicine is becoming more and more technological, it’s increasingly hard to create a therapeutic alliance that’s focused on the patient – which is where hypnosis can help. “Hypnosis makes medicine more human,” says psychiatrist Eric Bonvin, a hypnosis expert and professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Lausanne. “Also, hospital management teams have realized the benefits of hypnosis: it speeds up healing, increases patient satisfaction, shortens stays and saves money.”

Bonvin explains how hypnosis affects the brain: “Hypnosis activates the areas of the imagination, and everything is seen as if it were true. Imagination is a powerful ally against fear and pain. Hypnosis has a similar effect to morphine, acting on areas that alter this perception of pain, and even get rid of it entirely.

“There are effects of illusion,” he continues. “For a child who is scared of injections, we draw an elephant on their skin and say the needle is pricking the animal and that the child with this image won’t feel the sting: imagination toggles the pain-warning signal.”

We can understand hypnosis’ potential by studying this process, Bonvin believes. “By altering the focus, you can forget the pain – like the victim of an accident who helps others, without feeling his or her own pain,” he says.

“The more I feel pain, the more fear and anxiety I have – which in turn intensifies the pain. This is a vicious cycle that medication fails to break, while hypnosis is a good solution,” concludes Bonvin, who is also director of the Valais Hospital in Sion, where hypnosis is also being introduced.

Proof that hypnosis will have an increasingly central role in therapeutics can be found at the Romandy Hypnosis Institute, which trains 40 new experts every year, including doctors, psychologists, dentists, nurses and midwives. These specialists are able to work in their own field with additional training, which is recognized by the Swiss Medical Association.

This article first appeared in Swiss daily La Regione Ticino.