Why should I talk about emotion? Communication patterns associated with physician discussion of patient expressions of negative emotion in hospital admission encounters

Patient Educ Couns. 2012 Oct;89(1):44-50. doi: 10.1016/j.pec.2012.04.005. Epub 2012 May 9.


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.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Attitude of Health Personnel
  • Communication*
  • Emotions*
  • Empathy
  • Female
  • Hospitals
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Patient Admission
  • Physician-Patient Relations*
  • Physicians*
  • Qualitative Research
  • Tape Recording
  • Young Adult