The attitude, behaviour and communication skills of specialised doctors are increasingly recognised as important and they have been identified as training requirements. We designed a programme to teach communication skills to doctors in a University Department of Anaesthesia and evaluated its effect on patient outcomes such as satisfaction and anxiety. The 20 h programme was based on videotaped reviews of actual pre-operative visits and role-playing. Effects on patient satisfaction and pre-operative anxiety were assessed using a patient questionnaire. In addition, all participating anaesthetists assessed the training. We provide evidence that the training increased patient satisfaction with the pre-operative anaesthetic visit. Training also decreased anxiety associated with specific aspects of anaesthesia and surgery, but the effect was rather small given the intense programme. The anaesthetists agreed that their interpersonal skills increased and they felt better prepared to understand patients' anxieties. Communication skills training can increase patient satisfaction and decrease specific anxieties. The authors conclude that in order to better demonstrate the efficacy of such a training programme, the particular communication skills of anaesthetists rather than indirect patient outcome parameters should be measured.