Previous communication research in general medical practice has shown that effective communication enhances patient compliance, satisfaction and medical outcome. It is expected that communication is equally important in anaesthesia, since patients often suffer from anxiety and lack of knowledge about anaesthetic procedures. However, little is known about the nature of communication during routine anaesthetic visits. The present study of 57 authentic anaesthetic visits provides the first results on the structure and content of communication in the pre-operative setting using the Roter Interaction Analysis System (RIAS). Patient-centred communication behaviours of anaesthetists and the extent of patient involvement were particularly investigated. From the 57 pre-operative visits, 18 267 utterances were coded. The mean (SD) [range] duration of the visit was 16.1 (7.8) [3.7-42.7] min. Anaesthetists provided 169 (68) and patients 153 (82) utterances per visit (53.5% vs. 46.5%). Physician and patient gender had no impact on the distribution of utterances and the duration of the visit. Conversation mainly focussed on biomedical issues with little psychosocial discussion (< 0.1% of all anaesthetist utterances). However, anaesthetists quite frequently used emotional comments toward patients (7%) and involved them in the conversation. The use of facilitators, open questions and emotional statements by the anaesthetist correlated with high patient involvement. The amount of patient participation in anaesthetic decisions was assessed with the Observing Patient Involvement Scale (OPTION). Compared with general practitioners, anaesthetists offered more opportunities to discuss treatment options (mean (SD) OPTION score 26.8 (16.8) vs. 16.8 (7.7)).