Communication in the Physical Examination
Why Communication is important?
Clinical examination is facing a challenge concerning its accuracy and importance. The advancement in research has proven low reliability and validity of many clinical tests with higher rates of accuracy associated with imaging and diagnostic scans. However, when the subject is approached from the cost-effectiveness and availability point of view, the perspective changes. Restricted geographical access to advanced medical diagnostic tools and the lack of affordability impose limitations to the use of such technologies. Therefore, clinical examination is still a valuable tool in clinical practice.
Despite being the golden standard, laboratory testing and imaging, if misused, could be harmful and could be contributing to overdiagnosis, leading to further psychological and behavioural harms. The power of careful hands performing systematic physical examination still surpasses the technological era
A thorough and effective physical examination is considered to be an art that is not only important for proper diagnosis but also builds the patient-healthcare relationship. Lack of physical examination is perceived by the patients as insufficient attention . Interpersonal aspects and good communication increase the patient's satisfaction. It is an essential practice that has shown to improve the patient's willingness to engage in the treatment. A study by Hinchliffe and Lavin  found the physiotherapist's communication with the patient to be a key factor in patients satisfaction and compliance with the management plan.
Communicating effectively with patients improves the effectiveness of the consultation, shows supportiveness and collaboration, and reduces conflicts and complaints. The advantages of good communication are not exclusive to patients. Clinician satisfaction, understanding and recall are also achieved when the clinician engages in well-intentioned communication.
Communication is defined as a set of procedures for improving outcomes of care. Good communication is a learned skill rather than a personality trait.
Learning to communicate effectively is similar to becoming a professional tennis player. Mastering the sport requires being specific and focusing on skills and strategies. Like any other skill, good patient-centred communication will atrophy if you stop practising it. Experience, although a habit reinforcer, tends not to discern very carefully between good and bad habits.
Calgary–Cambridge model was developed in 1996. It is a practical model that incorporates the physical, psychological and social aspects of the consultation. The model encourages the use of note-taking in a way that does not interfere with demonstrating interest and empathy.
The model also encourages sharing thoughts with the patient by thinking-out-loud and accepting the patient's narrative.
It provides a structure to ensure a smooth flow of the consultation, by placing the patient at the centre to make them feel in control.
Stages of consultation according to the Calgary-Cambridge model:
- Initiating the Session: the aim of this stage is to establish a rapport and understand the reasons for the consultation.
- Gathering Information: asking both open and closed questions, picking up on cues and exploring the patient’s ideas, concerns and expectations. In this stage, the clinician develops a structure of the consultation that runs to the end of the session and ensures the flow of the process
- Physical Examination: find more information on the last section of this article
- Explanation and Planning: discuss the treatment plan and check the patient's understanding. Written materials, infographics and related information leaflets are recommended to ensure clarity of explanation.
- Close the Session by summarising and ensuring that the agreed plan is clear.
How to become a good communicator?
There are five elements necessary to hone the communication skills :
- Learn the systematic delineation and definition of skills
- Observe learners performing skills (e.g. clinical supervision, shadowing colleagues and experts)
- Ask for detailed feedback
- Practice and rehearse your learned skills
- Repeat the process
A study by King & Hoppe described the best practice for patient-centred care in the following table (adapted from
|Goal||Clinician's Responsibility||Communication Skills|
|Foster the clinician-patient
Demonstrate respect, caring and commitment
Acknowledge feelings and emotions
|Greet patient warmly and appropriately
Maintain eye contact
|Gather Information||Determine the purpose of the visit
Explore physiological symptoms (disease)
Understand patient perspective (illness)
|Ask open-ended questions
Allow the patient to complete responses (listen)
Clarify and summarize information
Explore the impact of illness on the patient
|Provide Information||Identify patient informational needs
Overcome health literacy barriers
|Speak plainly and avoid jargon
Check for understanding
|Share Decision-Making||Identify patient goals
Outline a collaborative treatment plan
|Explore patient preferences
Identify barriers to treatment choices
|Enable Treatment Success||Assess the patient’s capacity for self-management
Arrange for needed support
Advocate for and assist patient with the health system
|Summarize treatment plan
Elicit patient understanding
A guide to communication in the Physical Examination
Unlike( subjective history taking ), where the patient plays an active role, during the physical examination the patient's role changes. The clinician can make this process easier by guiding the patient's throughout, knowing that patients start the examination with some uncertainty. Your patient needs to understand the process and follow your train of thought.
The followings are considerations and tips on good communication skills to guide you through the physical examination process:
- Signposting: refers to informing your patient what you are about to say or do to help them feel less anxious and give them a sense of control. By providing a concise summary of the last step and the following step of the assessment,for example,
Following the subjective history taking of an MSK condition, the clinician can signpost by saying:
With all the information you have given me, I have a couple of ideas about what might be the cause of your discomfort. We will now move on to a physical examination to try and narrow down the underlying structures responsible for your symptoms. I firstly want to assess how you move in general and then simultaneously check for the possible involvement of your vertebral joints, muscles, and nerves in your back pain. I'm going to guide you into doing a couple of movements and whenever you feel your familiar pain, I would like you to tell me and then move out of the uncomfortable position.
This gives a framework for the patient, informing them of what information we gained from the interview, what should they expect next and what feedback is expected from them.
- Touch: Touch is a practice of professional feel and an exercise of care and sympathy. Palpation has always been considered a powerful diagnostic tool. In the scope of physiotherapy, touch provides safe space and empowers exercises and symptom modification. Touching gives professionals means of communication “beyond words”. It helps distressing patients, particularly if verbal communication is limited and for some patients, it has emotional and spiritual meanings. However, this practice comes with complications if perceived as improper and unprofessional, imposing challenges onto a core clinical skill Palpation of sensitive areas, such as genitals, or when the examined area is not directly correlating with the main complaint can make patients feel uncomfortable and protective of their personal space. Caution should be observed to respect cultural sensitivities and approaching certain population such as paediatrics and patients from the opposite sex, especially in the case of a male clinician with a female patient.
Clinicians should be mindful about the personal space of their patients, show respect and remain cautious of the patient's preference in terms of personal preference or culture, gender, age .etc. They must decide if, when, and how to touch as they negotiate personal and professional boundaries specific to each case.
Asking for permission to touch even if the patient expects you to touch them. It is an ethical practice and good manner to show respect for the patient's personal space.
- Undressing: While the majority of patients might be comfortable and understanding of undressing for the examination, some might be reserved.
Informing the patient ahead of the interview that they might need to undress is advisable to help ease the process. You might also like to inform the patients verbally and get them to agree before starting the examination.
Prior to asking the patient to undress, determine the need for undressing and how much should be exposed. If you sense their discomfort, you can offer a towel or a gown to minimise exposed areas.
Patients have the right to refuse to undress. In this case, it is unethical to put pressure or insist that patients undress but explain to them, with respect, that insufficient exposure of the body can lead to clinical error and undressing or not allowing touch that they carry the responsibility of the risk of a faulty diagnosis or substandard management.
- Briefly summarising the preliminary clinical hypothesis using easily understood terminology bearing in mind that the summary is inconclusive. Following the interview, discuss your hypothesis with your patient to inform them what you need to test and do you need to rule out using short uncomplicated sentences.
Patients have the right to discontinue the process at any time and it's a good practice to inform them that they have the right to do so. They can take a more active role by asking you questions or add more information during the examination.
Refrain from using jargon. the specific movement command should be clear and easy to understand using verbal instruction, physical demonstration, or manual facilitation, or a combination of them all.
The tone we use to communicate is highly important, refrain from the parental authoritative tone. Give your patient the space to ask for clarifications if they don't understand the command, this is particularly relevant in remote consultations done over the phone.
Only 12% of adults have proficient health literacy according to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy. In other words, 9 out of 10 adults may lack the skills needed to manage their health and prevent disease. It might help to assume all patients as having low health literacy and slow down, speak in plain, non-medical language and use appropriate communication techniques that ensure understanding.
Allow time for patients and their families to ask questions by asking “What questions do you have?” instead of “Do you have any questions?”
Check the understanding of a patient by asking them to rephrase it in their own words, not just repeat it, to ensure the message is understood.
- Avoid negating mode when correcting a patient's pattern of movement, try to refrain from using statements such as: no, not like that! Instead, employ positive affirmations and provide feedback.
For example, a patient performing lumbar side flexion but instead they do a combination of forward flexion and side flexion. To boost your patient's confidence and enhance their motivation your response might be something like: "Good job, I want you to repeat the movement, this time focusing on going more sideways. Yes, that looks better."
Using positive affirmation while giving feedback without highlighting the error enhances the patient's confidence in the performance of the movement. You might need to rephrase your command or describe it in simpler terms to facilitate the patient's understanding of the performance of the correct movement. For example: instead of telling the patient to move purely sideways, you might ask the patient to repeat the movement, sliding the hand down the side of the leg, as far as you can. This technique is particularly helpful with patients who are showing some anxiety of low levels of cognition.
- Treating minors: parent's consent is a legal requirement for the treatment of children. Parents are very valuable in facilitating the approach and the delivery of treatment. You can engage them in the session by asking the parent to assist the child and explain the commands in a way that the child can understand.
- Feedback: continuous feedback throughout the assessment is another way to practice good communication. Some patients might feel embarrassed and exposed, especially when they don't understand the relevance of the movements they perform during the examination. Providing inconclusive feedback and explaining the findings ease the patient's discomfort.
It is a good practice to explain the good findings instead of being only focused on findings problems. This lowers the anxiety factor and gives the patient some positive affirmation on themselves, improving their ideas of their movement and their body, and breaks down this whole idea of frailty.
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