Characteristics of word use in physician-patient communication


Falkenstein A, Tran B, Ludi D, Molkara A, Nguyen H, Tabuenca A, Sweeny K. Characteristics and correlates of word use in physician-patient communication. Annals of Behavioral Medicine 50:664-677, 2016.


This fascinating article presents a linguistic analysis of verbatim physician-patient healthcare visits related to pre-surgical consultation. The communications of 6 physicians (all male) and 145 of their English-speaking patients were studied. Patients were contacted after surgery and asked how much they liked the physicians with whom they had met, as well as how well they had adhered to the doctor’s instructions or recommendations. Physicians were also asked how optimistic they had felt about each patient’s treatment outcome after the consultation. The article presents a wealth of information related to differential use of linguistic forms such as emotionally positive (e.g., nice, good, hope) versus negative (e.g., hurt, pain, stress) words; use of past, present, and future tenses; and various forms of pronouns, along with data on how “well matched” were patients’ and physicians’ linguistic styles. Among the main findings: Patients liked physicians less when they used more emotionally negative versus positive words, and patients reported greater adherence to treatment when physicians had used plural rather than singular first-person pronouns (“we” versus “I.”). For their part, physicians felt more optimistic about treatment success when patients used “we” more than “I,” and when patients used verbs in the present or future tense more than past tense (e.g., discussing plans for the post-surgery period rather than discussing previous outcomes or complaints). While the study is observational, it provides interesting hypotheses about how patients and caregivers could learn to communicate in ways that both pairs in the dyad find most productive for treatment success.

I PICKED THIS ARTICLE BECAUSE, although it is a study focusing on communication patterns between patients and physicians, I thought: (a) how much different could it be for communications between us and our patients? and (b) perhaps this information would be useful for physician/ resident education at our rehabilitation institutions. Also, it came from a journal that may not be read routinely by Div 22 members; but we could all benefit from dipping occasionally into the Behavioral Medicine literature, as it contains many rich insights relevant to rehabilitation.  

THIS MONTH’S REHAB SCIENCE SPOTLIGHT was selected by Tessa Hart, PhD, Institute Scientist at Moss Rehabilitation Research Institute and a member of Division 22’s Science Committee.