Objective: To examine whether patient characteristics are associated with communication patterns between oncologists and breast cancer patients.
Methods: The study was conducted at 14 practices with 58 oncologists with 405 newly diagnosed patients with no prior history of breast cancer. The initial consultation between oncologist and patient was audiotaped and a detailed communication analysis performed. Interviews were conducted with patients and physicians immediately before and after consultations.
Results: Disparities were found across all patient demographics. Younger patients asked more questions as did those who were white had more than a high school education and when they reported an income that was high or medium income, compared to low (p<0.01). Patient proactive behavior, such as volunteering information to the physician unasked, was similarly related with all demographic predictors as was physician tendency to ask patients questions. Despite the inherently emotional nature of this encounter, there was surprisingly little overt discussion about how the patient felt about her diagnosis and how she was coping. Both patients and physicians spent time trying to establish an interpersonal relationship with each other, although patients spent more time. Patients differed in the number of relationship building utterances by age, education and income and physicians spent more time engaged in relationship building with white than non-white patients (p<0.01) and more educated and affluent patients (p<0.05).
Conclusion: This study indicates that patient demographic factors, such as race, income level, education and age seem to influence the amount of time physicians spend in almost all communication categories with patients. One recurring difference across most communication categories was race. Racial differences occurred in almost every one of the communication categories examined. White patients had many more utterances in almost every communication category than their non-white counterparts. These differences may mean a less adequate decision-making process for patients who are members of racial or ethnic minorities, patients who are less affluent, older, and have less education.
Practice implications: This study found that providers communicate differently with patients by age, race, education and income. These differences in communication may lead to disparities in patient outcomes. Communication skills training should explicitly train clinicians to recognize these tendencies. Patients with different demographics characteristics may also required education that is tailored to them.