Effects of communication about uncertainty and oncologist gender on the physician-patient relationship.

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Patient education and counseling.


OBJECTIVE: Physicians are increasingly expected to share uncertain information, yet there is concern about possible negative effects on patients. How uncertainty is conveyed and by whom may influence patients' response. We tested the effects of verbally and non-verbally communicating uncertainty by a male vs. female oncologist on patients' trust and intention to seek a second opinion.

METHODS: In an experimental video vignettes study conducted in The Netherlands, oncologist communication behavior (verbal vs. non-verbal and high vs. low uncertainty) and gender (male vs. female) were systematically manipulated. Former cancer patients viewed one video variant and reported trust, intention to seek a second opinion, and experience of uncertainty.

RESULTS: Non-verbal communication of high uncertainty by the oncologist led to reduced trust (β = -0.72 (SE = 0.15), p < .001) and increased intention to seek a second opinion (β = 0.67 (SE = 0.16), p < .001). These effects were partly explained by patients' increased experience of uncertainty (β = -0.48 (SE = 0.12), p < .001; and β = 0.34 (SE = 0.09), p < .001 respectively). Neither verbal uncertainty nor oncologists' gender influenced trust or intention to seek a second opinion.

CONCLUSION: Non-verbal communication of uncertainty by oncologists may affect patient trust and intention to seek a second-opinion more than verbal communication.

PRACTICE IMPLICATIONS: Further research to understand and improve oncologists' non-verbal uncertainty behavior is warranted.



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