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Conversation analysis, doctor–patient interaction and medical communication


Douglas W Maynard, Department of Sociology, University of Wisconsin, 1180 Observatory Drive, Madison, Wisconsin 53706, USA. Tel: 00 1 608 265 5583; Fax: 00 1 608 265 5389; E-mail:


Introduction  This paper introduces medical educators to the field of conversation analysis (CA) and its contributions to the understanding of the doctor−patient relationship.

The conversation analysis approach  Conversation analysis attempts to build bridges both to the ethnographic and the coding and quantitative studies of medical interviews, but examines the medical interview as an arena of naturally occurring interaction. This implies distinctive orientations and issues regarding the analysis of doctor−patient interaction. We discuss the CA approach by highlighting 5 basic features that are important to the enterprise, briefly illustrating each issue with a point from research on the medical interview. These features of conversation analytic theory and method imply a systematic approach to the organisation in interaction that distinguishes it from studies that rely on anecdote, ethnographic inquiry or the systematic coding of utterances.

Conversation analysis and the medical interview  We then highlight recent CA studies of the ‘phases’ of the internal medicine clinic and the implications of these studies for medical education. We conclude with suggestions for how to incorporate CA into the medical curriculum. It fits with biopsychosocial, patient-centred and relationship-centred approaches to teaching about medical communication.