Imprecision in medical communication: Study of a doctor talking to patients with serious illness
Uncertainty is believed to be a central feature in illness experiences. Conversations between a consultant haematologist and 61 seriously ill patients were transcribed, entered on a database and scrutinized for patterns of language uncertainty by linguistic concordancing analysis. Transcripts were then discussed in detail with the haematologist, and techniques of protocol analysis were used to gain insight into his thought processes during consultations. The main findings were that the doctor used many more expressions of uncertainty than did patients: that evaluative terms were widely used to reassure rather than to worry patients; and that patients and doctor together used certain key terms ambiguously, in a manner which allowed the doctor to feel that facts were not misrepresented while perhaps permitting the patient to feel reassured.