"It's not what you say ...": racial disparities in communication between orthopedic surgeons and patients

Wendy Levinson, Pamela L Hudak, Jacob J Feldman, Richard M Frankel, Alma Kuby, Sylvia Bereknyei, Clarence Braddock
Medical Care 2008, 46 (4): 410-6

BACKGROUND: Excellent communication between surgeons and patients is critical to helping patients to make informed decisions and is a key component of both high quality of care and patient satisfaction. Understanding racial disparities in communication is essential to provide quality care to all patients.

OBJECTIVE: To examine the content and process of informed decision-making (IDM) between orthopedic surgeons and elderly white versus African American patients. To assess the association of race and patient satisfaction with surgeon communication.

RESEARCH DESIGN: Analysis of audiotape recordings of office visits between orthopedic surgeons and patients.

PARTICIPANTS: Eighty-nine orthopedic surgeons and 886 patients age 60 years or older in Chicago, Illinois.

METHODS: Tapes were analyzed by coders for content using 9 elements of IDM and for process using 4 global ratings of the relationship-building component of communication (responsiveness, respect, listening, and sharing). Ratings by race were compared using chi analysis. Patients completed a questionnaire rating satisfaction with surgeon communication and the visit overall. Logistic analysis was used to assess the effect of race on satisfaction.

RESULTS: Overall there were practically no significant differences in the content of the 9 IDM elements based on race. However, coder ratings of relationship were higher on 3 of 4 global ratings (responsiveness, respect, and listening) in visits with white patients compared with African American patients (P < 0.01). Patient ratings of communication and overall satisfaction with the visit were significantly higher for white patients.

CONCLUSIONS: The content of IDM conversations does not differ by race. Yet differences in the process of relationship building and in patient satisfaction ratings were clearly present. Efforts to enhance cultural communication competence of surgeons should emphasize the skills of building relationships with patients in addition to the content of IDM.

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