Doctor-patient communication

According to published research, the average American patient visiting a doctor gets 22 seconds into his initial statement on his health complaint before the physician interrupts and takes the lead in the conversation. This style of communication is probably based on the assumption that patients will consume valuable time unnecessarily if allowed to talk as long as they wish.

But a report in the British Medical Journal questions that assumption. Researchers attempted to discover how long patients would actually (initially) talk if allowed to do so. A prior study (1989) from a neurological practice reported the time was one minute and 40 seconds. In the recent study researchers examined how long it would take outpatients at a referral centre to complete their initial health complaint if uninterrupted by their physician.

Among their findings:

  • Average spontaneous talking time was 92 seconds, and 78 percent (258) of patients had finished their initial statement in two minutes.

  • Slightly more than two percent (seven of 331) of patients talked for longer than five minutes.

  • Patients in less selected groups might need even less time to complete their initial statement.

    Age was the only significant factor influencing spontaneous talking. Researchers concluded doctors do not risk being swamped by their patients' health complaints if they listen until a patient indicates that his or her list of complaints is complete. The vast majority of patients were able to express their health complaint in two minutes or less while only a small proportion droned on for longer periods (see figure )

    In all cases, the doctors felt that the patients were giving important information and should not be interrupted.

    Source: Wolf Langewitz et al., Spontaneous Talking Time at Start of Consultation in Outpatient Clinic: Cohort Study, British Medical Journal, September 28, 2002.

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    FMF Policy Bulletin\15 October 2002
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