Recognizing and adjusting to barriers in doctor-patient communication

Ann Intern Med. 1989 Jul 1;111(1):51-7. doi: 10.7326/0003-4819-111-1-51.


Barriers frequently develop in physician-patient encounters. If they go unrecognized, they can severely limit the therapeutic potential of the doctor-patient relationship. Because barriers are not always explicit, a strategy is presented for recognizing implicit signs such as verbal-nonverbal mismatch, cognitive dissonance, unexpected resistance, and physician discomfort. Once a potential barrier is identified, its source can be defined and explored using standard clinical reasoning techniques such as hypothesis generation and testing. Patients can often share in the process of generating hypotheses about the nature and sources of barriers. Once defined and understood, most barriers can be lessened and sometimes resolved using the basic communication skills of acknowledgment, exploration, empathy, and legitimation. When conflict exists, common interests and differences must be clarified. Conflict might involve disagreement about the presence of a barrier, its nature or source, its relevance to the physician-patient relationship, or about strategies for approaching it. Negotiation need not be limited to the initial positions, but can include creative solutions whereby both parties gain. The decision to confront a barrier depends on both doctor and patient readiness, as well as how critical the barrier is to the therapeutic process, and how amenable it is to change. By effectively uncovering and addressing barriers, the physician can often turn roadblocks to effective communication into means for enhancing the therapeutic relationship.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Communication Barriers*
  • Communication*
  • Humans
  • Patients / psychology
  • Physician-Patient Relations*
  • Physicians / psychology