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Context  Good social relationships are crucial to well-being and to health in particular. The perception of having supportive social relationships has effects on reducing morbidity and mortality comparable with those of a good diet, regular exercise and cessation of moderate smoking. This suggests that supportive, trusting relationships with doctors could have a substantial direct biomedical effect on patients’ health.

Methods  A critical review of the patient–doctor relationship (PDR) literature is presented, along with a review of relevant interactional studies that examine doctor–patient interactions from the perspective of conversation analysis (CA). This literature shows how patients respond to doctors’ verbal and non-verbal behaviours in systematic ways that affect how they disclose and how they relate to doctors.

Results  Findings from the CA literature suggest that clinicians might consider several important interactional features to improve the PDR and perhaps also patient health outcomes: (i) the use of open-ended questions (e.g. ‘What brought you in today?’) and positive polarity items (e.g. ‘Is there something else you wanted to talk about today?’) elicits patient concerns and addresses unmet concerns more effectively than the use of closed questions and negative polarity items, respectively; (ii) eye gaze suggests availability and an attending recipient, and patients indicate that doctor attentiveness at crucial parts of their problem presentation is important, and (iii) verbal dysfluencies are one practice speakers employ to gain the attention of a non-attending recipient. Doctors may want to pay attention to patients’ dysfluencies to better understand when their attention is valued.

Conclusions  Constructing supportive relationships with patients often does not require a great investment of time, but it does require commitment to ‘being there for patients’. This review suggests that when doctors attune to language and social practices during medical consultations, the relationships they develop with patients may substantially improve patients’ health and be intrinsically rewarding for both doctors and patients.