Talking with patients and peers: medical students' difficulties with learning communication skills

Med Teach. 2009 Jun;31(6):528-34. doi: 10.1080/01421590802208859.


Background: Patient-centered communication skills, such as an empathic attitude towards patients and a holistic perspective on health, are difficult to acquire. Designing effective courses requires better understanding of the difficulties that students perceive with learning to talk with patients

Aims: The study aimed at exploring students' common difficulties with learning patient-centered communication skills.

Methods: Group discussions about student-patient interviews were videotaped and analyzed with regard to issues that students perceived as difficult and to their reflections about these difficulties.

Results: The students reported feeling intrusive as they explored the patient's psychosocial situation. They avoided being empathic and felt insecure about coping adequately with emotionally loaded topics. Their difficulties were mainly due to insufficient understanding of the functional relations between psychosocial issues and health conditions. Moreover, students were insecure concerning the function of affective feedback in the diagnostic process. However, the group discussions generated a language for analyzing and structuring interviews that helped develop the students' professional identities.

Conclusions: Students experienced moral qualms about applying major aspects of patient-centered interviewing. Instruction in communication skills should aim at filling the students' knowledge gaps and fostering their awareness and expression of emotional perceptions. Long-term relationships with patients could help develop patient-centered communication.

MeSH terms

  • Clinical Competence*
  • Communication*
  • Curriculum
  • Education, Medical
  • Emotions
  • Empathy
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Interpersonal Relations
  • Learning*
  • Male
  • Patient Care Team
  • Patient-Centered Care
  • Peer Group*
  • Physician-Patient Relations*
  • Qualitative Research
  • Students, Medical*
  • Sweden
  • Videotape Recording