A study of patient clues and physician responses in primary care and surgical settings

JAMA. 2000 Aug;284(8):1021-7. doi: 10.1001/jama.284.8.1021.


Context: Patients often present clues (direct or indirect comments about personal aspects of their lives or their emotions) during conversations with their physicians. These clues represent opportunities for physicians to demonstrate understanding and empathy and thus, to deepen the therapeutic alliance that is at the heart of clinical care. A paucity of information exists regarding how physicians address the psychological and social concerns of patients.

Objectives: To assess how patients present clues and how physicians respond to these clues in routine primary care and surgical settings.

Design, setting, and participants: Descriptive, qualitative study of 116 randomly selected routine office visits to 54 primary care physicians and 62 surgeons in community-based practices in Oregon and Colorado, audiotaped and transcribed in 1994.

Main outcome measures: Frequency of presentation of clues by patients during office visits, nature (emotional vs social) and content of clues, and nature of physician responses to clues, coded as positive or missed opportunity.

Results: Fifty-two percent and 53% of the visits in primary care and surgery, respectively, included 1 or more clues. During visits with clues, the mean number of clues per visit was 2.6 in primary care and 1.9 in surgery. Patients initiated approximately 70% of clues, and physicians initiated 30%. Seventy-six percent of patient-initiated clues in primary care settings and 60% in surgical settings were emotional in nature. In surgery, 70% of emotional clues related to patients' feelings about their biomedical condition, while in primary care, emotional clues more often related to psychological or social concerns (80%) in patients' lives. Physicians responded positively to patient emotions in 38% of cases in surgery and 21% in primary care, but more frequently they missed opportunities to adequately acknowledge patients' feelings. Visits with missed opportunities tended to be longer than visits with a positive response.

Conclusion: This study suggests that physicians in both primary care and surgery can improve their ability to respond to patient clues even in the context of their busy clinical practices. JAMA. 2000;284:1021-1027

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Communication*
  • Empathy
  • Family Practice*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Patients / psychology*
  • Physician-Patient Relations*
  • Physicians / psychology*
  • Specialties, Surgical*