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Open Access Research article

Stereotyping of medical disability claimants' communication behaviour by physicians: towards more focused education for social insurance physicians

HJ van Rijssen12, AJM Schellart12, M Berkhof12, JR Anema12 and AJ van der Beek12*

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Public and Occupational Health, EMGO Institute for Health and Care Research, VU University Medical Center, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

2 Research Center for Insurance Medicine, collaboration between AMC-UMCG-UWV-VUmc, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

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BMC Public Health 2010, 10:666  doi:10.1186/1471-2458-10-666

Published: 3 November 2010

Abstract

Background

Physicians who hold medical disability assessment interviews (social insurance physicians) are probably influenced by stereotypes of claimants, especially because they have limited time available and they have to make complicated decisions. Because little is known about the influences of stereotyping on assessment interviews, the objectives of this paper were to qualitatively investigate: (1) the content of stereotypes used to classify claimants with regard to the way in which they communicate; (2) the origins of such stereotypes; (3) the advantages and disadvantages of stereotyping in assessment interviews; and (4) how social insurance physicians minimise the undesirable influences of negative stereotyping.

Methods

Data were collected during three focus group meetings with social insurance physicians who hold medical disability assessment interviews with sick-listed employees (i.e. claimants). The participants also completed a questionnaire about demographic characteristics. The data were qualitatively analysed in Atlas.ti in four steps, according to the grounded theory and the principle of constant comparison.

Results

A total of 22 social insurance physicians participated. Based on their responses, a claimant's communication was classified with regard to the degree of respect and acceptance in the physician-claimant relationship, and the degree of dominance. Most of the social insurance physicians reported that they classify claimants in general groups, and use these classifications to adapt their own communication behaviour. Moreover, the social insurance physicians revealed that their stereotypes originate from information in the claimants' files and first impressions. The main advantages of stereotyping were that this provides a framework for the assessment interview, it can save time, and it is interesting to check whether the stereotype is correct. Disadvantages of stereotyping were that the stereotypes often prove incorrect, they do not give the complete picture, and the claimant's behaviour changes constantly. Social insurance physicians try to minimise the undesirable influences of stereotypes by being aware of counter transference, making formal assessments, staying neutral to the best of their ability, and being compassionate.

Conclusions

We concluded that social insurance physicians adapt their communication style to the degree of respect and dominance of claimants in the physician-claimant relationship, but they try to minimise the undesirable influences of stereotypes in assessment interviews. It is recommended that this issue should be addressed in communication skills training.