Surgeons' tone of voice: a clue to malpractice history

Surgery. 2002 Jul;132(1):5-9. doi: 10.1067/msy.2002.124733.


Background: Interpersonal aspects of care, such as the communication behaviors of physicians, are often cited as central to patients' decisions to initiate malpractice litigation. Relatively little is known, however, about the impact of the communication behaviors of surgeons. In the current study, we investigated the relationship between judgments of surgeons' voice tone and their malpractice claims history.

Methods: We examined the relationship between surgeons' voice tone during routine office visits and their history of malpractice claims. Surgeons were audiotaped while speaking to their patients during office visits, and very brief samples of the conversations were rated by coders blind to surgeons' claims status. Two 10-second clips were extracted for each surgeon from the first and last minute of their interactions with 2 different patients. Several variables were rated that assessed warmth, hostility, dominance, and anxiety from 10-second voice clips with content and 10-second voice clips with just voice tone.

Results: Controlling for content, ratings of higher dominance and lower concern/anxiety in their voice tones significantly identified surgeons with previous claims compared with those who had no claims (odds ratio [OR] 2.74, 95% confidence interval [CI] 1.16 to 6.43 for dominance; OR 0.46, 95% CI 0.21 to 1.01 for concern/anxiety).

Conclusions: Surgeons' tone of voice in routine visits is associated with malpractice claims history. This is the first study to show clear associations between communication and malpractice in surgeons. Specific types of affect associated with claims can be judged from brief audio clips, suggesting that this method might be useful in training surgeons.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Communication*
  • Female
  • General Surgery*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Malpractice*
  • Middle Aged
  • Physician-Patient Relations*
  • Voice