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Race of patient influences nonverbal communication during medical visits

Washington, Sun, 22 Jan 2012 ANI

Washington, Jan 22 (ANI): Nonverbal communication during medical visits is influenced by the race of the physician and the patient, a new study has found.


According to the study conducted by researchers from the University of South Carolina, when communicating with white patients, black physicians may face greater challenges than their white counterparts.


"African American physicians face many professional challenges, including discrimination, bias from employers and colleagues and white patients who question their authority," NewsWise quoted Irena Stepanikova, an assistant sociology professor as saying.


"The conflicted pattern of communication evident in this study may reflect these experiences," she said.


Working from videotaped medical visits from 1998 -2000 from another study, Stepanikova analysed nonverbal communication between primary care physicians and patients.


She studied 30 primary care physicians and 209 patients, age 65 and older. While other studies have addressed the role of verbal communication and race in doctor-patient interaction, Stepanikova's study is the first to look at nonverbal communication and race in older patients.


Her findings are particularly relevant as society and the medical profession become increasingly diverse.


Black physicians outperformed their white colleagues by using more positive nonverbal communication in their interactions with patients in general, she said.


She also found black physicians' communication with black patients was overwhelmingly positive, but that their communication with white patients yielded a mix of positive and negative nonverbal behaviours.


"Black physicians used high degrees of smile, touch and open body position with black patients," Stepanikova said.


"With white patients they had a high use of smile and gaze, but a low use of open body position. This conflicted pattern of communication may suggest a lack of social ease that is reminiscent of behaviour between female doctors with male patients," she said.


To conduct her study, Stepanikova, with the help of seven graduate students, digitised the videotapes, which were recorded in three different clinical settings in the Southeast and Midwest, and coded the nonverbal behaviours.


When coding nonverbal behaviours, she looked for specific positive cues, including open body position, eye contact, smile and touch. She said these cues convey involvement, availability, attention, warmth, encouragement, respect, understanding, empathy and affiliation, which she calls the building blocks of physician-patient relationships.


She said the findings underscore the need for further investigation by researchers to determine the impact that nonverbal communication, whether positive or negative, may have on the delivery of patient care and patient health outcomes.


The study has been published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine (JGIM). (ANI)


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