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Doctors Consider Nonverbal Cues in Medical Decisions
Date:9/30/2011

FRIDAY, Sept. 30 (HealthDay News) -- Unspoken clues -- like behavior and appearance -- influence the doctor-patient relationship, according to a new study. Researchers from the University of Michigan found subtle, nonverbal signs not only have an impact on how patients view their relationship with their doctor, they also affect doctors' medical decisions.

The findings could help doctors better understand how they make decisions and what underlying messages their behavior might send to their patients, the researchers said.

"Our findings show that both doctors and patients identified tacit clues involving the behavior or appearance of the other, but they were not always able to articulate precisely how these clues informed their judgments and assessments," said the study's lead author, Dr. Stephen G. Henry, a research fellow at the Veterans Affairs Ann Arbor Healthcare System and at the University of Michigan, in a university news release. "Not surprisingly, patients and doctors discussed these clues very differently."

After interviewing 18 doctors and 36 patients and examining video recordings of routine checkups, the study found patients took their doctor's behavior into account in evaluating their relationship, such as whether the doctor seemed hurried, was able to put them at ease, made eye contact or listened to them.

On the other hand, although awareness of nonverbal clues varies from doctor to doctor, the study revealed physicians incorporate their patients' nonverbal clues, such as body language, eye contact, physical appearance and tone of voice, into their medical decisions.

"It's mostly looking at the patient. Do they look healthy?" one doctor commented on a recording.

Doctors also consider how often they examined their patients in making judgments and in observing them for signs of depression or signals that they are withholding information or medical concerns, the study showed.

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