Issue: When medical schools began to recognize, a generation ago, that clinical "communication skills" could not be taken for granted among students, a process began of researching them, and introducing the results into curricula. This allowed for a discussion, for the first time, about how doctors should talk to patients, and manage interviews with them. However, there was a focus on a set of behavioral processes which were often unsophisticated with respect to the role of language in communication, or of language as a means of sustaining and describing ambiguity, or language as the primary impetus for educational reflection.
Evidence: This paper looks at literature from language studies, the philosophy of language and the philosophy of education to establish the point that, where natural languages are concerned, it is possible and useful to talk of the purposes for which language is used. It is also important to recognize that the meaning of a particular language use is to a substantial extent defined by context: and that languages are excellent vehicles for maintaining and describing ambiguity, where it is impossible to reduce a state of affairs to the well-defined conclusion of empirical research.
Implications: In the light of this understanding, there is a need for "communication," and particularly the methodologies through which it is taught, to reflect these points. Simulation exercises, designed to develop clinical communication, should be clear that there is no single correct way of "talking to patients," no set of behavioral processes which is always effective. It is, in the end, the awareness and wisdom of the doctor, selecting from among a range of available approaches, which is at stake. In addition, methodologies should account for the recognition that awareness comes only from reflection, and that helping medical students and doctors alike to reflect is central to good practice.
Keywords: Medical education; language; philosophy.