How does communication heal? Pathways linking clinician-patient communication to health outcomes

Patient Educ Couns. 2009 Mar;74(3):295-301. doi: 10.1016/j.pec.2008.11.015. Epub 2009 Jan 15.


Objective: Although prior research indicates that features of clinician-patient communication can predict health outcomes weeks and months after the consultation, the mechanisms accounting for these findings are poorly understood. While talk itself can be therapeutic (e.g., lessening the patient's anxiety, providing comfort), more often clinician-patient communication influences health outcomes via a more indirect route. Proximal outcomes of the interaction include patient understanding, trust, and clinician-patient agreement. These affect intermediate outcomes (e.g., increased adherence, better self-care skills) which, in turn, affect health and well-being. Seven pathways through which communication can lead to better health include increased access to care, greater patient knowledge and shared understanding, higher quality medical decisions, enhanced therapeutic alliances, increased social support, patient agency and empowerment, and better management of emotions.

Conclusion: Future research should hypothesize pathways connecting communication to health outcomes and select measures specific to that pathway.

Practice implications: Clinicians and patients should maximize the therapeutic effects of communication by explicitly orienting communication to achieve intermediate outcomes (e.g., trust, mutual understanding, adherence, social support, self-efficacy) associated with improved health.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Communication*
  • Cooperative Behavior
  • Health Services Accessibility
  • Health Status*
  • Humans
  • Models, Educational
  • Models, Psychological
  • Models, Theoretical*
  • Outcome Assessment, Health Care / organization & administration*
  • Patient Education as Topic
  • Patient Participation
  • Power, Psychological
  • Professional-Patient Relations*
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic
  • Research / organization & administration*
  • Research Design
  • Social Support
  • Trust