Objective: To describe hospital-based physicians' responses to patients' verbal expressions of negative emotion and identify patterns of further communication associated with different responses.
Methods: Qualitative analysis of physician-patient admission encounters audio-recorded between August 2008 and March 2009 at two hospitals within a university system. A codebook was iteratively developed to identify patients' verbal expressions of negative emotion. We categorized physicians' responses by their immediate effect on further discussion of emotion - focused away (away), focused neither toward nor away (neutral), and focused toward (toward) - and examined further communication patterns following each response type.
Results: In 79 patients' encounters with 27 physicians, the median expression of negative emotion was 1, range 0-14. Physician responses were 25% away, 43% neutral, and 32% toward. Neutral and toward responses elicited patient perspectives, concerns, social and spiritual issues, and goals for care. Toward responses demonstrated physicians' support, contributing to physician-patient alignment and agreement about treatment.
Conclusion: Responding to expressions of negative emotion neutrally or with statements that focus toward emotion elicits clinically relevant information and is associated with positive physician-patient relationship and care outcomes.
Practice implications: Providers should respond to expressions of negative emotion with statements that allow for or explicitly encourage further discussion of emotion.
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