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Open Access Research article

Instrumental and socioemotional communications in doctor-patient interactions in urban and rural clinics

Kristen Desjarlais-deKlerk* and Jean E Wallace

Author Affiliations

Department of Sociology, University of Calgary, 2500 University Drive NW, Calgary, AB T2N 1N4, Canada

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BMC Health Services Research 2013, 13:261  doi:10.1186/1472-6963-13-261

Published: 8 July 2013

Abstract

Background

Location of practice, such as working in a rural or urban clinic, may influence how physicians communicate with their patients. This exploratory pilot study examines the communication styles used during doctor-patient interactions in urban and rural family practice settings in Western Canada.

Methods

We analyzed observation and interview data from four physicians practicing in these different locations. Using a grounded theory approach, communications were categorized as either instrumental or socioemotional. Instrumental communication refers to “cure-oriented interactions” and tends to be more task-oriented focusing on the patient’s health concerns and reason for the appointment. In contrast, socioemotional communication refers to more “care-oriented interactions” that may make the patient feel comfortable, relieve patient anxiety and build a trusting relationship.

Results

The physicians in small, rural towns appear to know their patients and their families on a more personal level and outside of their office, and engage in more socioemotional communications compared to those practicing in suburban clinics in a large urban centre. Knowing patients outside the clinic seems to change the nature of the doctor-patient interaction, and, in turn, the doctor-patient relationship itself. Interactions between urban doctors and their patients had a mixture of instrumental and socioemotional communications, while interactions between rural doctors and their patients tended to be highly interpersonal, often involving considerable socioemotional communication and relationship-building.

Conclusions

Despite the different ways that doctors and patients communicate with each other in the two settings, rural and urban doctors spend approximately the same amount of time with their patients. Thus, greater use of socioemotional communication by rural doctors, which may ease patient anxiety and increase patient trust, did not appear to add extra time to the patient visit. Research suggests that socioemotional communication may ultimately lead to better patient outcomes, which implies that health differences between rural and urban settings could be linked to differences in doctor-patient communication styles.

Keywords:
Physicians; Family practice; Rural clinics; Urban clinics; Patient-physician communication; Patient-physician interaction