It makes sense that patients would feel more connected to physicians who make direct eye contact, shake hands and offer the occasional pat on the shoulder. But a new study from the Journal of Participatory Medicine confirms that patients sense more empathy from doctors who excel at nonverbal communication.
For the study, researchers analyzed video and follow-up patient questionnaires of 110 brief first-time visits between primary care physicians and patients who had cold symptoms. Although many physicians are currently moving to electronic records systems, the physicians studied were using paper charts.
Physicians' empathy scores increased by 0.13 points for every one percent increase in eye contact during average-length visits, according to Enid Montague, Ph.D., of the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, and colleague,. With longer visits, however, the percentage of eye contact had a lesser effect on empathy scores.
Physical touch was also studied in depth. According to the questionnaires, patients perceived more empathy from physicians who touched them one to three times, such as through a handshake, hug or pat on the back. After three touches, however, the gestures lost their positive effect as they came across as disingenuous, HealthDay News reported.
"Clinical environments designed for patient and clinician interaction should be designed to facilitate positive nonverbal interactions such as eye contact and social touch," Montague and colleagues concluded. Examples of such steps include increased training for physicians to increase eye contact during visits and redesigning health information technology systems to be less obtrusive to physician-patient encounters, according to the study.