For nearly two decades, teaching good communication skills has been mandatory for medical schools because of research showing that good patient-doctor communication can lead to improved patient satisfaction and better health care outcomes. To this end, medical educators have developed a host of communication courses and workshops that combine lectures, self-assessments, video recordings and “standardized patients,” or actors in the role of patients.
More recently, many schools have broadened their courses to include “cultural competency,” or the ability to communicate with those from different racial, ethnic and social backgrounds. Studies have shown that while a patient’s race and ethnicity can be linked to sharply different treatment courses and quality, better communication between doctors and patients of different backgrounds can reduce the disparities.
Despite these tremendous efforts, there is one area of communication to which few schools have devoted significant time or resources: body language and facial expressions.
Now a small but growing body of research is revealing that the nonverbal component of the patient-doctor interaction — the subtle gestures, body positions, eye contact, touch and expressions that pass between individuals — is as critical a part of communication as verbal expressions. And nonverbal cues may, in fact, be more reflective of the biases faced by doctors and patients.
In this recent study, for example, a group of medical sociologists analyzed the interactions between 30 primary care doctors and more than 200 patients over age 65 and found that white physicians tended to treat older patients similarly, regardless of race. Black physicians, on the other hand, often gave white patients contradictory signals, mixing positive nonverbal behaviors, like prolonged smiling or eye contact, with negative ones, like creating physical barriers by crossing the arms or legs.