NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


June 7, 2004

Poor doctor-patient communications leads to misdiagnoses, the ordering of unnecessary tests and the failure of patients to follow treatment plans, research says.

  • Only 15 percent of patients fully understand what their doctors tell them.
  • Some 50 percent leave their doctor's offices uncertain of what they are supposed to do to care for themselves.

Studies show good communication resulted in a higher degree of adherence to prescribed treatments and improved emotional and physical health in people with a variety of illnesses, such as lower blood sugar levels in diabetic patients, lower blood pressure in hypertensive patients, and a reduction in pain in cancer patients.

However, a breakdown of communication is a common theme of malpractice suits. Dr. Wendy Levinson, vice chairwoman of the University of Toronto's department of medicine, has conducted many studies on doctor-patient communication. She found:

  • Doctors with a more dominant tone of voice were more likely to be sued by patients than those whose voices contained more warmth.
  • The doctor-patient relationship often has more to do with lawsuits than actual physical harm.ul>

Studies suggest that women are better at building relationships with their doctors than most men: the typical male patient asks zero questions during a 15-minute doctor's visit, while the average for women is six, according to a study by Dr. Sherrie Kaplan, an associate dean in the college of medicine at the University of California, Irvine.

Most medical schools, health maintenance organizations, and institutions that run continuing medical educations courses for licensed doctors now provide communication training. Patients were interrupted by their doctor 18 seconds into explaining their problems in 1984. When a follow-up study was done in 1999, doctors had learned to give their patients 23 seconds before interrupting.

Source: Meredith Levine, "Tell the Doctor All Your Problems, but Keep It to Less Than a Minute," New York Times, June 1, 2004.


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