When the Patient is Absent in Patient-Centered Communication Training: A Discursive Analysis of How Medical Students Learn to Interact with Patients

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Phenomenon: Patient-centered communication is an ideal for undergraduate medical education and has been for decades. However, medical students often find the patient-centered approach challenging. The present study finds a possible discordance between formal intentions of a medical curriculum and the corresponding learning environment. The objective of our study was to explore how medical curriculum resonates with the purpose of patient-centered medicine, including how a possible dynamic may have helped maintain this discordance in undergraduate medical education. Approach: The study took a qualitative approach exploring the medical curriculum via a structured communication course. The educational context for the course was considered a discursive environment, partially constructed through documents. The concept of textual agency was used to analyze curriculum and course documents. This was to explore how competencies were presented in the medical curriculum and course descriptions and how they were translated through the practices of the communication course. Inductive thematic analysis was used to analyze observations made during the course. Findings: Our analysis suggested that the medical curriculum content and structure still emphasize bio-medical disciplines and knowledge domains in students learning. This connected well with the socialization of medical students toward the role as medical experts whose primary task is to provide information, while patients are defined as passive subjects, who received information. The course description also operationalized complexities of patient-centered communication to a measurable, instrumental structure of skills. This focus on one-directional communication frames the students' understanding of the courses and their performance in it. They learn that: (1) meeting a real patient is a rare opportunity, (2) engaging patients' thoughts and feelings in the conversation is challenging, and (3) the biomedical aspect should be prioritized in the conversation. Insights: These findings suggested that the medical curriculum we studied gave limited room for patient-centered medicine, even in communication training. The power of macro-level documents framed and focused micro-level learning activities and could help explain observed disharmonies in patient-medical student encounters. We see how patient-centered medicine - in both texts and practice - is represented and enacted as a peripheral activity and patients are given a marginal position in encounters with students. The findings suggested that there are challenges for progress and change toward a more patient-centered communication training and curriculum. However, empirical findings also offered points of departure for course leaders and curriculum planners wishing to take steps toward a stronger and more reflective patient-centered approach in medical education, supported through the document structure and the translation of the curriculum through relevant learning activities.

Original languageEnglish
JournalTeaching and Learning in Medicine
Pages (from-to)1-11
Number of pages11
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 2023

ID: 356429110