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Doctor-Patient Communication Impacts Health

A recent study in the Journal of General Internal Medicine that Ohio residents may be interested in examined how doctors communicate with patients. The study results show how the nonverbal component of communication, such as gestures, body position, and facial expression, can be just as important as what your doctor actually says.

It can be expected that the better communication a doctor and patient have and the less miscommunication, the better chance that the patient will not be harmed through preventable errors.

According to The New York Times' summary of the study, the researchers noticed that African-American doctors were generally better at nonverbal communication than their white colleagues. They used more positive nonverbal cues such as eye contact, smiling and even touch when speaking with patients.

White physicians generally treated older patients the same, regardless of race. However, African-American doctors were more likely to employ a friendlier, open body position when dealing with African-American patients as opposed to white patients. While smiling and making eye contact, they were less likely to engage with white patients in an open body position. These results are consistent with past studies showing that female doctors more often used mixed signals in communications with male patients.

Previous studies have shown that the quality of doctor-patient communication has a significant impact on patient health outcomes and satisfaction with care. Unconscious problems in communication can lead to social discomfort, which in turn can adversely impact health outcomes. For example, patients in poor health or facing a poor prognosis tend to rely on nonverbal cues as a sign of whether a physician is taking their health seriously.

Research suggests that better doctor-patient nonverbal communication can help reduce this gap. Many medical schools have already added courses and workshops designed to improve communication and cultural understanding in future generations of doctors.

Source: The New York Times, "Doctor and Patient: What Body Language Says About Doctors," Pauline W. Chen, M.D., Feb. 9, 2012

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