Objectives: Although some patient characteristics are known to be related to physician and patient communication in medical encounters, very little is known about the impact of patients' health status on communication processes. The authors assess relations of patients' physical and emotional health status to verbal and nonverbal communication between physicians and patients in four original studies, and combine results across the four studies using meta-analytic procedures.
Methods: In four original studies of routine outpatient visits (consisting of more than 250 physicians and more than 1,300 patients), health status was measured and audiotape or videotape records were coded for verbal content and nonverbal cues indicating task-related behavior and affective reactions on the part of both the physician and the patient. Both physical and mental health data were obtained, using physicians and/or patients as sources; in two studies, physicians' satisfaction with the visit also was measured. All available background characteristics for both physicians and patients were controlled via partial correlations. The meta-analytic procedures used were the unweighted and weighted (by sample size) average partial correlations, the combined P across studies (Stouffer method), and the test of effect size heterogeneity.
Results: Physicians showed signs of negative response to sicker or more emotionally distressed patients, both in their behavior and in their ratings of satisfaction with the visit. Sicker patients also behaved more negatively than healthier patients. However, physicians also engaged in a variety of positive and professionally appropriate behaviors with the sicker or more distressed patients. This mixed pattern of responses is discussed in terms of alternative frameworks: the physician's goals, reciprocation of affect, and ambivalence on the part of the physician.
Conclusions: The patient's health status appears to influence physician-patient communication. In clinical practice, increased attention by physicians to their own and their patients' behavior may enhance diagnosis and prevent misunderstandings.