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How important is the way doctors communicate with patients?

Friday 18th March 2016
Can the way that doctors communicate with their patients affect test outcomes? Image: iStock/dazuokin
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The way that doctors communicate with patients, including the language they use when speaking to them, can influence test outcomes and prognosis, research shows.

Effective communication skills are a key requirement for doctors to possess throughout their training and when applying for jobs, but exactly what impact can these have on their patients?

The importance of using the right language

According to a new study from the University of Bristol, which was funded by the Scientific Foundation Board of the Royal College of General Practitioners, doctors don't always use the best language choices when trying to explain the severity of viral illnesses to the parents of young patients.

Researchers analysed the language used during 60 doctor-patient consultations and found that medical professionals tend to use words and explanations that minimise the severity of viral respiratory infections, which often leads to misunderstandings regarding when antibiotics are needed.

It is often the hidden symptoms of viruses that are the most severe, which the study authors found were not always necessarily communicated effectively to parents, meaning they often did not understand the treatment their children were prescribed.

For example, when children cried or made an excessive fuss of their symptoms, this did not necessarily mean they were as ill as those who dealt with their infections in a quieter manner. However, parents were more likely to expect antibiotics to be prescribed for children with more obvious symptoms.

Dr Christie Cabral, lead author of the study, commented: "Our study found communication aimed at reducing parents' expectations of antibiotics being prescribed could be more effective.

"Clinicians could reduce expectation of antibiotic treatment for more severe appealing illnesses by highlighting that viral illnesses, such as bronchitis or viral pneumonia - for which antibiotics are not the answer - can be severe and that healthy children will usually recover from bacterial respiratory infections without antibiotic treatment."

Overall, this research suggests that it is vital that doctors think carefully about the language and tone of voice they are using to communicate information to young patients' parents in order to ensure children with viruses are receiving the best possible care to help them get better.

Can effective communication improve test outcomes?

A study conducted by scientists from the Indiana University School of Medicine, Emory University and the US Centers for Disease Control in 2007 led to the discovery that successful doctor-patient communication has the potential to influence the outcomes of blood tests and other minor procedures.

Researchers analysed the results of 36 previous studies into patient care, finding that effective communication, including doctors using the right language and showing that they were listening carefully to patients, could have a positive impact on test results.

Approaching doctor-patient communication in the right way was found to not only improve patients' satisfaction levels, but helped them on the road to recovery from chronic headaches, as well as assisting in improving their mental wellbeing.

A good relationship between medics and patients also appeared to help lower both blood pressure and blood sugar levels, further highlighting the importance of approaching communication in an understanding manner.

Written by James Puckle

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