Physician’s positive language use reduces anxiety among patients with unexplained symptoms

General practitioners regularly see patients with persistent physical symptoms (PPS) that have no clear explanation. These patients often feel misunderstood. But the researcher Inge Stortenbeker, who will receive her PhD from Radboud University on 3 November, found that a physician’s use of language and choice of words can influence how anxious patients are after a consultation.

“Not only does what you say as a GP influence how a patient feels, but also your choice of words,” said linguist Inge Stortenbeker. For her thesis she worked together with communication scientists and general medicine scientists to study language use during a GP’s consultation. It appeared that, when talking to patients with PPS, GPs often use less positive language as well as more expressions of uncertainty.

During physical examinations of patients with PPS, physicians are quick to say ‘I don’t hear any irregularities in the lungs’ or ‘I don’t see anything strange’. Stortenbeker discovered that it helps to communicate the same message in a more positive fashion. “If, for example, a physician says ‘Your lungs sound clear’ or ‘I see that your blood pressure is good’, we see that patients have a lower level of anxiety after their consultations.”

Whining patients?

In addition to the language used by the GP, Stortenbeker also researched which words are used by patients with PPS. “People often assume that these patients voice their complaints in a certain way, that they exaggerate, whine or use vague language,” the PhD candidate explained. “But we found no proof of this. For example, patients with PPS are not sooner inclined to say that something ‘hurts a lot’ than are patients with clear symptoms. That assumption seems to be based on prejudices.”

Talking about stress

Stortenbeker understands that it can be difficult for physicians to speak to patients with PPS. “Sometimes psycho-social circumstances like stress or worries influence how patients experience symptoms. It’s very complicated to talk about this with patients. It’s good to create space in your language use so that patients can express their ideas. So instead of saying ‘There’s a clear relationship between emotional problems and this sort of symptoms’ it would be better to ask ‘Do you think your relationship with your son has any influence on your symptoms?’ In this way you invite patients to talk to you.”

However, the researcher does not mean that there is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ language use in a conversation between a GP and a patient. “It’s especially important that physicians are aware of the influence that their language use has on the course of the conversation and how patients feel afterwards.”

Contact information

For more information, please contact Inge Stortenbeker at inge.stortenbeker [at] (inge[dot]stortenbeker[at]ru[dot]nl) or Radboud University's Science Communication Team by calling +31 (0)24 361 6000 or by sending an e-mail to media [at] (media[at]ru[dot]nl).

Organizational unit
Centre for Language Studies
Language, Health & Healthcare