Nonverbal sensitivity in medical students: implications for clinical interactions

J Gen Intern Med. 2009 Nov;24(11):1217-22. doi: 10.1007/s11606-009-1107-5. Epub 2009 Sep 22.


Background: Clinicians' accuracy in perceiving nonverbal cues has potentially important consequences, but has received insufficient research.

Objective: To examine the relation of medical students' nonverbal sensitivity to their gender and personal traits, as well as to their communication and impressions made during a standardized patient (SP) visit.

Design: Psychometric testing, questionnaire, and observation.

Setting: One US medical school.

Participants: Two-hundred seventy-five third-year medical students.

Measurements: Nonverbal sensitivity and attitudes were measured using standard instruments. Communication during the SP visit was measured using trained coders and analogue patients who viewed the videotapes and rated the favorability of their impressions of the student.

Results: Nonverbal sensitivity was higher in female than male students (P < 0.001) and was positively correlated with self-reported patient-centered attitudes (P < 0.01) and ability to name one's own emotions (P < 0.05). It was also associated with less distressed (P < 0.05), more dominant (P < 0.001), and more engaged (P < 0.01) behavior by the SP, and with more liking of the medical student (P < 0.05) and higher ratings of compassion (P < 0.05) by the analogue patients. Correlations between nonverbal sensitivity and other variables were generally stronger and different for male than female students, but nonverbal sensitivity predicted analogue patients' impressions similarly for male and female students.

Conclusion: Medical students' nonverbal sensitivity was related to clinically relevant attitudes and behavioral style in a clinical simulation.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Attitude of Health Personnel*
  • Clinical Competence* / standards
  • Empathy*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Interpersonal Relations*
  • Male
  • Nonverbal Communication / psychology*
  • Photic Stimulation / methods
  • Sex Factors
  • Students, Medical / psychology*
  • Young Adult