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What is in the toolkit (and what are the tools)? How to approach the study of doctor–patient communication

Abstract

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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