Objective: Although researchers have long investigated relationships between clinician-patient communication and health outcomes, much of the research has produced null, inconsistent, or contradictory findings. This essay examines challenges in the study of how clinician-patient communication contributes to a patient's health and offers recommendations for future research.
Discussion: Communication may directly impact outcomes, but more often it will have an indirect effect through its influence on intervening variables (e.g., patient understanding, clinician-patient agreement on treatment, adherence to treatment). For example, a patient communication skills intervention may not directly improve pain control for cancer patients. However, it may do so indirectly by activating patients to talk about cancer pain, which prompts the physician to change pain medication, which leads to better pain control. Additionally, communication measurement is complicated because relationships among communication behavior, meaning, and evaluation are complex.
Conclusion: Researchers must do more to model pathways linking clinician-patient communication to the outcomes of interest, particularly pathways in which the communication effects are indirect or mediated through other variables. To better explicate how communication contributes to health outcomes, researchers must critically reflect on the assumptions they are making about communication process and choose measures consistent with those assumptions.
Keywords: Communication measurement; Communication pathways; Health outcomes; Physician–patient communication.
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