Consultations for minor ailments constitute a large part of the workload of general practitioners (GPs). As medical interventions are not always available, specific communication strategies, such as active listening and positive communication, might help GPs to handle these problems adequately. This study examines to what extent GPs display both strategies during consultations for minor ailments and investigates how each of these relate to the patients' perceived health, consultation frequency and medication adherence.
524 videotaped consultations between Dutch GPs and patients aged 18 years or older were selected. All patients presented a minor ailment, and none of them suffered from a diagnosed chronic illness. The observation protocol included the validated Active Listening Observation Scale (ALOS-global), as well as three domains of positive communication, i.e. providing reassurance, a clear explanation, and a favourable prognosis. Patients completed several questionnaires before, immediately after, and two weeks after the consultation. These included measures for state anxiety (STAI), functional health status (COOP/WONCA charts) and medication adherence (MAQ). Consultation frequency was available from an ongoing patient registration. Data were analysed using multivariate regression analyses.
Reassurance was related to patients' better overall health. Providing a favourable prognosis was linked to patients feeling better, but only when accompanied by a clear explanation of the complaints. A clear explanation was also related to patients feeling better and less anxious, except when patients reported a low mood pre-visit. Active listening alone was positively associated with patients feeling worse. Among patients in a good mood state, active listening was associated with less adherence.
To some extent, it seems helpful when GPs are at the same time clear and optimistic about the nature and course of minor ailments. Yet, it does not seem helpful always and in all cases, e.g. when patients feel low upon entering the consulting room. Although communication strategies might to some extent contribute to the management of minor ailments, the results of this observational study also indicate that it is important for a physician to pay attention to the mood of the patient who enters the consulting room.