Context: Interest in the teaching of communication skills in medical schools has increased since the early seventies but, despite this growing interest, relatively limited curricular time is spent on the teaching of communication skills. The limited attention to the teaching of these skills applies even more to the physicians' clinical years, when attention becomes highly focused on biomedical and technical competence. Continuing training after medical school is necessary to refresh knowledge and skills, to prohibit decline of performance and to establish further improvements.
Objective: This review provides an overview of evaluation studies of communication skills training programmes for clinically experienced physicians who have finished their undergraduate medical education. The review focuses on the training objectives, the applied educational methods, the evaluation methodology and instruments, and training results.
Methods: CD-ROM searches were performed on MedLine and Psychlit, with a focus on effect-studies dating from 1985.
Results: Fifteen papers on 14 evaluation studies were located. There appears to be some consistency in the aims and methods of the training programmes. Course effect measurements include physician self-ratings, independent behavioural observations and patient outcomes. Most of the studies used inadequate research designs. Overall, positive training effects on the physicians' communication behaviour are found on half or less of the observed behaviours. Studies with the most adequate designs report the fewest positive training effects.
Conclusion: Several reasons are discussed to explain the limited findings. Future research may benefit from research methods which focus on factors that inhibit and facilitate the physicians' implementation of skills into actual behaviours in daily practice.