A systematic review of surgeon-patient communication: strengths and opportunities for improvement

Patient Educ Couns. 2013 Oct;93(1):3-17. doi: 10.1016/j.pec.2013.03.023. Epub 2013 Jul 16.


Objective: Effective communication is critical to patient satisfaction, outcomes of care and malpractice prevention. Surgeons need particularly effective communication skills to discuss complicated procedures and help patients make informed choices. We conducted a systematic review of the literature on surgeon-patient communication.

Methods: Searches were conducted in MEDLINE, PsycINFO, and Sociological Abstract. Two reviewers screened citations and full-text articles. Quality was appraised using the Critical Appraisal Skills Program tool. Studies were categorized into content of communication, patient satisfaction, relationship of communication to malpractice, and duration of visits.

Results: 2794 citations and 74 full-text articles, 21 studies and 13 companion reports were included. Surgeons spent the majority of their time educating patients and helping them to make choices. Surgeons were generally thorough in providing details about surgical conditions and treatments. Surgeons often did not explore the emotions or concerns of patients. Potential areas of improvement included discussing some elements of informed decision making, and expressing empathy.

Conclusion: Surgeons can enhance their communication skills, particularly in areas of relative deficiency. Studies in primary care demonstrate communication programs are effective in teaching these skills.

Practice implications: These can be adapted to surgical training and ultimately lead to improved outcomes and satisfaction with care.

Keywords: Communication; Empathy; Physicians/psychology; Physician–patient relations; Surgeons.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Choice Behavior
  • Communication*
  • Humans
  • Malpractice
  • Patient Satisfaction
  • Physician-Patient Relations*
  • Physicians