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What is in the toolkit (and what are the tools)? How to approach the study of doctor–patient communication
  1. Caitríona Cox,
  2. Zoë Fritz
  1. The Healthcare Improvement Studies Institute, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK
  1. Correspondence to Dr Caitríona Cox, The Healthcare Improvement Studies Institute, Cambridge, Cambridgeshire, UK; clc70{at}


Doctor–patient communication is important, but is challenging to study, in part because it is multifaceted. Communication can be considered in terms of both the aspects of the communication itself, and its measurable effects. These effects are themselves varied: they can be proximal or distal, and can focus on subjective measures (how patients feel about communication), or objective measures (exploring more concrete health outcomes or behaviours). The wide range of methodologies available has resulted in a heterogeneous literature which can be difficult to compare and analyse.

Here, we provide a conceptual approach to studying doctor–patient communication, examining both variables which can controlled and different outcomes which can be measured. We present methodologies which can be used (questionnaires, semistructured interviews, vignette studies, simulated patient studies and observations of real interactions), with particular emphasis on their respective logistical advantages/disadvantages and scientific merits/limitations. To study doctor–patient communication more effectively, two or more different study designs could be used in combination.

We have provided a concise and practically relevant review of the methodologies available to study doctor–patient communication to give researchers an objective view of the toolkit available to them: both to understand current research, and to conduct robust and relevant studies in the future.

  • statistics & research methods
  • qualitative research
  • medical education & training

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  • Contributors ZF and CC together conceived the idea for the review. CC reviewed the literature and produced a first draft of the paper, with input from ZF. ZF provided comments and edited this draft. Both authors contributed to the arguments made in the final version of the paper, which is the result of their close collaboration.

  • Funding This research was funded in whole, or in part, by the Wellcome Trust 208213/Z/17/Z. For the purpose of open access, the author has applied a CC BY public copyright licence to any Author Accepted Manuscript version arising from this submission. CC is funded by an NIHR academic clinical fellowship. ZF and CC are based in The Healthcare Improvement Studies Institute (THIS Institute), University of Cambridge. THIS Institute is supported by the Health Foundation, an independent charity committed to bringing about better health and healthcare for people in the UK.

  • Competing interests CC is an associate social media editor for the PMJ.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.