Body language: healthcare and new studies

Non-verbal communication is often described as “body language”. It’s also a very important part of the daily relationship between doctor and patient.

Body language says a lot about our interest and engagement in the communication we’re having. Even when we “say the right things”, the message can be lost if our body language suggests we’re thinking something very different. It is important our posture, eye contact, facial expression and touch all match the words we are saying.

Think about the following four elements of body language in the communication with patients/clients:

  • Body posture (how we stand or sit): we’ll communicate much better when we bring our face to the same level as the other person and do not tower above them if he or she is in bed or a chair. We should be relaxed, not fidgety and impatient. And it’s important that we adopt an ‘open’ stance, showing the person that we want to be there and are not desperate to rush away and do something else – standing well back from the person with your arms crossed and flicking your eyes constantly towards the door isn’t exactly an encouragement to good communication.
  • Eye contact: keep good eye contact with the person, but don’t stare – and remember that for people from some cultures, making eye contact can seem a bit rude. This emphasises the importance of knowing about the individuals we’re caring for and learning how to approach them in the right way.
  • Facial expression: so much of what we are thinking is given away by the expressions on our face. We may not even realise we are rolling our eyes, grimacing or stifling a yawn, none of which will encourage patients/clients to keep talking to us. We need to be aware of our facial expressions and control them at all times.
  • Touch: touch is a very powerful means of communication. Lightly touching a person’s hand can convey your concern and affection for them. But as with eye contact, the touch has to be appropriate, and there are important cultural issues around touch that need to be understood. It’s also important that patient/clients give permission for you to touch them.

The studies about body language have been and still are truly numerous, heterogeneous and really interesting.

For example a new research by a pair of Stanford scientists reveals that quantitative analysis of such nonverbal cues can indicate a person’s ability to learn and the strength of their creative skills. The researchers turned the study of nonverbal cues into a big data project by utilizing the VHIL’s (Virtual Human Interaction Lab) common video-game cameras to measure the exact movements of participants’ bodies, limbs and heads. Working with a hundred subjects and recording at 30 frames per second, the experiment produced a mountain of data, which they parsed with a machine-learning model trained to objectively identify patterns that might sneak past the human eye. They then applied the technique to an experiment that could reveal the role body language plays in how effectively one person can teach another.

The scientists repeated this scenario 50 times, and entered the camera data and test scores into their model to identify the behaviors that correlated with poor test scores.

Bailenson, one of the researchers, said:

“For our sample and our task, students with very extreme movements with their upper body tended to learn worse than others”.

Another research, called “A Virtual Midas Touch? Touch, Compliance, and Confederate Bias in Mediated Communication”, explore if the well-known Midas touch effect (A brief touch to the shoulder or upper arm increases people’s helping behavior and willingness to comply with requests) is also operative in mediated interactions where the touch act is replaced by electromechanical stimulation through a tactile display. With two experiments and a meta-analysis, they demonstrate that stimulation through a tactile display can induce similar helping behavior as actual interpersonal physical contact. This virtual Midas touch effect suggests that electromechanical stimuli are processed in ways similar to actual touch.

Another interesting study, called “Model of nonverbal exchange in physician-patient expectations for patient involvement”, reviews the literature on the nonverbal aspects of physician-patient interaction, focusing on how expectations about patient involvement are conveyed and negotiated by physicians and patients. Important outcomes of this process, such as satisfaction, adherence, and patient health, are examined. A model of physician-patient negotiation involving four interaction styles is presented to examine the negotiation process and the effects of patient involvement on outcomes. The model may be useful in examining patients’ evolving expectations for their own involvement and the subsequent negotiation processes that take place within one or across several physician-patient encounters. The model may also be useful for studying both new and continuing physician-patient relationships in terms of the changing patterns of nonverbal communication that occur as a function of physician and patient expectations about patient involvement.

Lastly “Do Iconic Hand Gestures Really Contribute to the Communication of Semantic Information in a Face-to-Face Context?”, a study that compares the communicative effectiveness of iconic gestures when viewed in a face-to-face context compared to when viewed on video. The results are quite striking in that gestures seemed at least as effective, and in some cases even more effective at communicating position and size information when they occurred in the face-to-face condition compared to video.

Matteo Nunner

Graduated in Literature at the University of Eastern Piedmont, he's now studying anthropological and ethnological science at the University of Milano-Bicocca. Journalist and writer, he collaborated with many local newspapers and in the 2015 he published his first book "Qui non arriva la pioggia". In the 2017 published "Il peccato armeno, ovvero la binarietà del male".

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