The Calgary-Cambridge Guide to the Medical Interview - Gathering Information on the Patient's Perspective

Original Editor - Marissa Fourie Top Contributors - Merinda Rodseth, Tarina van der Stockt and Kim Jackson

Introduction[edit | edit source]

Layout of the Calgary-Cambridge Model- Detailed, with objectives

The second step of the medical interview according to the Calgary-Cambridge model is the gathering of information.[1] In the previous step, the main reason for the patient’s visit was established and a basic background has been provided. Questions were open-ended and the patient was given a chance to reveal his/her main complaint.

Information gathering involves further exploration of the patient’s problem from a biomedical perspective, but also from the patient’s perspective, all within the patient’s unique context and background. During this section of the interview, the clinician gains as much information as possible to formulate a well-supported clinical hypothesis.

Traditionally, the gaining of biomedical information forms the basis of the medical interview; however, of equal importance is the investigation of the patient’s perspective on his/her symptoms, and the role that it plays/will play in their road to recovery. This page covers the patient perspective / psychosocial approach during the gathering of information, while specific detail on the biomedical side of the interview will be covered in a follow-up session.

Disease vs Illness[edit | edit source]

The terms “disease” and “illness” both refer to ill-health. From a medical anthropological perspective, these words convey different meanings and contexts:

Disease refers to the structural or functional abnormality of body organs or systems. It entails the pathological entities responsible for ill-health, and are identifiable in form, progress and content. Aspects such as signs and symptoms, natural history, specific physiological parameters, treatment and prognoses of any identified disease are similar universally [2]. Examples are conditions such as asthma, bone fractures, tendinosis or multiple sclerosis.

Illness encompasses an individual’s specific response to being unwell and the effect that ill-health has on life experience. It can include their view on the origin of the condition, personal significance or an existing framework thereof, the effect of the condition on their behaviour or relationships, as well as any steps taken to manage the condition. Illness thus provides meaning to the experience of ill-health, rather than focusing on the pathological parameters of a diagnosis. The emotional impact of illness can be significantly influenced by social and cultural backgrounds as well as personality traits[2].

The shaping of illness and the subsequent behaviour is often determined by a patient’s perception of the specific occurring incident. Either consciously or subconsciously, patients usually ask six questions in making sense of their ill-health [2]. These questions are explored in Box 1 using an example of non-specific back pain in an office worker. His thought processes will be shaped by the answers to the six mentioned questions (potential answers added in italics).

  1. What has happened? (My back hurts badly and is getting worse.)
  2. Why has it happened?  (Maybe I lifted something heavy, maybe my mattress or office chair is faulty, maybe there is a problem with the spine?)
  3. Why to me? (My mom had a bad back, it must be hereditary. And I am an office worker, so I sit all day, which is bad for my back. I also don’t have a strong core.)
  4. Why now? (I am middle-aged, maybe there is degeneration?)
  5. What would happen if nothing is being done? (It can become worse, and what if something serious is wrong? I could become decapacitated or even end up in a wheelchair like my mom.)
  6. What steps should I take to manage it? (Should I self-medicate? I know my core is weak and I am overweight, so maybe I should exercise more. Maybe I must consult the doctor?)

Box 1: Questions determining the extent of illness to patients[2]

Cassell [3] summarised the difference between disease and illness:  “Illness is what a man has when he goes to the doctor. Disease is what he has when he returns from the doctor’s office. Disease, then, is something an organ has. Illness is something a man has.”[3] Therefore, disease focuses on the biomedical aspect of ill-health, where illness includes personal, cultural and social factors which describe how a patient experiences ill-health. Illness and disease mostly co-occur, but can also present in the absence of each other.[4] They can also have a circular effect on each other[2]. For example, a patient may be suffering from undiagnosed upper cervical joint pain with a referred headache (disease). Stress and anxiety surrounding the possible origin and prognosis of the disease (illness) can lead to clenching and subsequent muscle spasm, resulting in a tension headache which will exacerbate the original headache.

Considering Disease and Illness in the Medical Interview[edit | edit source]

Healthcare professionals are well-equipped to deal with disease and the acute presentation thereof. They have been taught how to make a diagnosis on clinical signs and symptoms and physiological parameters, and tend to much better understand the concept of peripheral pain mechanisms than central pain mechanisms [5]. Although the investigation of disease is truly important in the interview, the neglect to regard the role of central pain-processing mechanisms (attributing to illness) will lead to an incomplete gathering of information and a failure to achieve a truly patient-centred approach.

When a healthcare professional focuses mostly on the biomedical aspect of a condition without regarding potential perception and fears around the symptoms, the possibility exists that medical management can actually exacerbate symptoms rather than treat them.  For example, explaining joint pain as a result of ‘some wear and tear’ may be well-intended to put the patient at ease and encouraging return to normal activity. However, the interpretation of ‘wear and tear’ may exacerbate the idea of vulnerability in certain patients and lead to fear avoidance of movement, which is the opposite of what was initially intended by the healthcare professional [5].

The healthcare professional should select the best words that may affect the perception of the condition and the cause[6]. This will establish effective coping strategies that will impact the reaction to treatment[6]. The healthcare profession can select the most positive words to name/describe the condition, give treatment recommendations or in general communication during the examination and treatment[6]. By doing this it encourages adaptive behaviours and beliefs[6].

Skills Necessary for Gaining Psychosocial Information[edit | edit source]

A shift from a ‘disease model’ to a ‘biopsychosocial model’ in the patient interview is integral for a comprehensive clinical picture. The term "biopsychosocial” refers to a combination of a biomedical investigation, understanding social background and context, and regarding a person’s potential psychological connections to their illness. When placing equal emphasis on all three these factors, the clinician will conduct a well-balanced interview, gaining information holistically and specific to the individual.

A psychosocial approach “tells the patient’s illness story”, and explains and predicts the individual’s experience and response to illness[4]. Different from biomedical information, which is based on pathophysiology and mostly peripheral pain mechanisms, the gaining of psychosocial information is often abstract and not quantitative. This, together with the fact that clinicians often have a poor understanding of central pain mechanisms underlying illness, makes the gaining of psychosocial information challenging to many health care professionals[5].  Certain skills can be learned and engaged in the medical interview to effectively gauge the psychosocial influence on the presenting condition, as discussed below:

Active Listening[edit | edit source]

The Cone System

Active listening puts patients at ease, signals interest from the clinician’s side and thereby facilitates disclosure of information without feeling pressured. It involves both verbal and non-verbal behaviour. In terms of non-verbal behaviour, the listener should be seated, facing the patient at a comfortable distance, leaning slightly forward and making good eye contact. The clinician should also allow the patient to talk without interrupting, and leave space for the patient to think before answering [7].

Verbal behaviour includes appropriate questioning techniques, such as the use of open-to-closed questions, facilitation and summarising. With active listening, the term open-to-closed cone is used, by alluding to a cone that starts wide and is narrow towards the end. When using the open-to-closed cone the questioning is started with a non-direct approach by asking open-ended questions, followed by more direct exploration by asking close-ended questions to verify the information.[8] Facilitation refers to comments or behaviour by the interviewer that will encourage the patient to continue talking along the same lines. Summarising takes place when the clinician offers a concise repeat of information gathered thus far to the patient[8]. This ensures that all information is understood correctly and provides the patient with an opportunity to clarify details, make corrections or add more information[7].

Watch the following video if you want to learn more about using the open-to-closed cone.


Explore Belief Systems[edit | edit source]

Medical belief systems are influenced by various aspects, including culture, religion, community and education. Patient health beliefs may differ vastly from scientific medicine. An example is the health belief system of traditional Aboriginal Australians, who attribute ill-health to nature, environmental forces, supernatural forces or Western influences[10] rather than following a pathophysiological model. Another well-known and controversial example is the religion-based prohibition of certain medical procedures, some of which may be life-saving [11].

It is essential for the clinician to explore and respect their patients’ health belief systems, regardless of whether it differs from the clinician’s personal viewpoints. This is significant for a number of reasons. Firstly, the acknowledgement of health belief systems provides the clinician with a more complete idea of the patient as a person, contributes to patient-centred medicine and may predict how certain patients will act in response to illness or suggested treatment[4].  Secondly, certain health beliefs involve preferences in terms of medical management. This may include aspects such as the clinician being of the same sex as the patient, the involvement of family in decision making[10] or the carrying out of certain medical procedures[12]. Thirdly, regarding spirituality, a positive link has been established between religion and patient well-being and recovery. Therefore, optimal spiritual support can contribute to better recovery rates[11].

The exploration of the patient’s medical belief system can be a potentially sensitive issue, but should not be avoided or omitted to prevent an awkward situation. When investigating the patient’s belief systems, remain open and objective. Ask if you do not completely understand and adopt an attitude of acceptance and willingness to learn more about the patient’s background. Avoid any non-verbal communication that may come across as disapproving or judgemental, such as frowning or shaking the head[13].

Explore Patient Perceptions and Concerns, and Setting the Agenda[edit | edit source]

Empathy is defined as the cognitive understanding of a patient’s experiences, concerns and perspectives, and the ability to communicate this understanding in order to help alleviate any form of suffering or discomfort[14]. An empathic clinician creates a space where a patient feels comfortable to disclose sensitive information without fearing judgement or a breach of confidentiality. The clinician also needs to thoroughly understand the patient’s perceptions, concerns and biases regarding the presenting condition. Asking a patient what he/she thinks the problem is, not only provides a comprehensive view of the patient's perceptions but may also encourage the patient to share any deeper emotions and fears regarding a potential diagnosis[7].

There is often a mismatch between patient and clinician agendas in the medical interview. The clinician’s agenda tends to focus on the gaining of information with the end goal of a clinical hypothesis and is mostly driven by a more biomedical approach. Patient agendas focus more on conveying their problems and concerns to the clinicians and mostly include psychosocial aspects which can easily be missed by clinicians[15]. Patients provide certain clues in communication regarding life circumstances or emotions that may contribute significantly to the clinical image. If such clues are ignored, the clinician fails to integrate the patient as a person, and subsequent medical management may not address patient concerns in their entirety [16]. For this reason, clinicians need to be able to listen holistically rather than focus on simply gaining biomedical information.

Underlying concerns and biases are often expressed subtly or in a by-the-way manner in conversation. Patients may seemingly deviate from the line of conversation, mentioning factors or concerns that provides insight into their circumstances or symptoms. The clinician will need to prioritise topics that emerge from the conversation which may need further exploration. However, when a clinician misses a concern that the patient deems significant, the patient will be likely to repeat the concern later in the conversation. Such an issue should then be acknowledged and addressed [16].

Determine Patient Expectations[edit | edit source]

Similar to agenda-setting, clinicians and patients often have different expectations from a medical interview. Patient expectations are often more complex than the relief of symptoms. Expectations can include aspects such as the exploration of alternative treatment options, diagnostic clarity, reassurance and verification, or even the opportunity to voice frustration and anger. Conversely, the clinician might have a different set of expectations, such as performing or requesting certain tests to confirm or negate a diagnosis, to provide immediate symptomatic treatment or to determine the appropriateness of interventions requested by the patient. Where there is a mismatch between clinician and patient expectations, this needs to be negotiated between the two parties [5].

Explore the Impact of Symptoms on the Patient’s Life[edit | edit source]

Functional impairment is a major threat to many patients, especially if their regular income or normal functioning is at stake. Clinicians need to explore the extent of the functional impairment due to the presenting condition, but also how this impairment affects the patient on an emotional and psychological level. Threat value can influence illness in many ways, often subconsciously. For example, if a patient fears that a presenting condition can result in the loss of occupational function, he may ignore or deny symptoms out of fear of losing his job. Unresolved pathology can lead to even more complications and exacerbate the patient’s condition[4]. Where possible and applicable, the physiotherapist should seek to council and provide patient support to optimise occupational and functional ability, or alternatively, to refer the patient to other social or occupational professionals for optimal management and return to regular function.

Responding to Patient Cues[edit | edit source]


Conclusion[edit | edit source]

The role of the psychosocial assessment in the medical interview should never be underestimated. A thorough psychosocial evaluation will provide a holistic view of the patient and as well as his/her condition and assist the clinician in devising an all-encompassing management plan. Also, proper focus on the psychosocial aspects of the patient enhances the therapeutic alliance and improves patient compliance as an active participant in the process of treatment and rehabilitation. Picking up on psychosocial cues and clues as opposed to the acquisition of concrete pathological information is often challenging for health care workers. However, psychosocial evaluation is a skill that can (and should) be learned, improved and seen as an investment in gaining the complete clinical image necessary for holistic and comprehensive patient management.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Hiller A, Delany C. Communication in physiotherapy: Challenging established theoretical approaches. Manipulating Practices: A Critical Physiotherapy Reader. 2018:308-33.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 Helman CG. Disease versus illness in general practice. The Journal of the Royal College of General Practitioners. 1981 Sep 1;31(230):548-52.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Cassell, E.J., 1978. The Healer’s Art: A New Approach to the Doctor-Patient Relationship. Pelican (Penguin Books), Harmondsworth, England.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 Mead, N., Bower, P., 2000. Patient-centredness: a conceptual framework and review of the empirical literature. Soc. Sci. Med. 51, 1087–1110.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 Main, C.J., Buchbinder, R., Porcheret, M., Foster, N., 2010. Addressing patient beliefs and expectations in the consultation. Best Pract. Res. Clin. Rheumatol. 24, 219–225.
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  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Kaufman, G., 2008. Patient assessment: effective consultation and history taking. Nurs. Stand. R. Coll. Nurs. G. B. 1987 23, 50–6, quiz 58, 60.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Takemura Y, Atsumi R, Tsuda T. Identifying medical interview behaviours that best elicit information from patients in clinical practice. The Tohoku Journal of Experimental Medicine. 2007;213(2):121-7.
  9. Consultations 4 Health. 2017. Open and closed questions part 2 - using the open to closed cone. Available from:
  10. 10.0 10.1 Maher P. A review of ‘traditional’Aboriginal health beliefs. Australian journal of rural health. 1999 Nov;7(4):229-36.
  11. 11.0 11.1 Post, S.G., Puchalski, C.M., Larson, D.B., 2000. Physicians and Patient Spirituality: Professional Boundaries, Competency, and Ethics. Ann. Intern. Med. 132, 578–583.
  12. Lawson T, Ralph C. Perioperative Jehovah's Witnesses: a review. BJA: British Journal of Anaesthesia. 2015 Nov 1;115(5):676-87.
  13. Bakić-Mirić NM, Butt S, Kennedy C, Bakić NM, Gaipov DE, Lončar-Vujnović M, Davis B. Communicating with patients from different cultures: Intercultural medical interview. Srpski arhiv za celokupno lekarstvo. 2018;146(1-2):97-101.
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  15. Cowell I, McGregor A, O’Sullivan P, O’Sullivan K, Poyton R, Schoeb V, Murtagh G. How do physiotherapists solicit and explore patients’ concerns in back pain consultations: a conversation analytic approach. Physiotherapy Theory and Practice. 2019 Aug 10:1-7.
  16. 16.0 16.1 Levinson, W., Gorawara-Bhat, R., Lamb, J., 1999. A study of patient clues and physician responses in primary care and surgical settings. JAMA J. Am. Med. Assoc. 284, 1021–7.
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