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Purpose: Although the importance of communication skills in anesthetic practice is increasingly recognized, formal communication skills training has hitherto dealt only with limited aspects of this professional activity. We aimed to document and analyze the informally-learned communication that takes place between anesthesia personnel and patients at induction of and emergence from general anesthesia. Methods: We adopted an ethnographic approach based principally on observation of anesthesia personnel at work in the operating theatres with subsequent analysis of observation transcripts. Results: We noted three main styles of communication on induction, commonly combined in a single induction. In order of frequency, these were: (1) descriptive, where the anesthesiologists explained to the patient what he/she might expect to feel; (2) functional, which seemed designed to help anesthesiologists maintain physiological stability or assess the changing depth of anesthesia and (3) evocative, which referred to images or metaphors. Although the talk we have described is nominally directed at the patient, it also signifies to other members of the anesthetic team how induction is progressing. The team may also contribute to the communication behaviour depending on the context. Communication on emergence usually focused on establishing that the patient was awake. Conclusion: Communication at induction and emergence tends to fall into specific patterns with different emphases but similar functions. This communication work is shared across the anesthetic team. Further work could usefully explore the relationship between communication styles and team performance or indicators of patient safety or well-being.

Original publication




Journal article


Canadian Journal of Anesthesia

Publication Date





915 - 920