CONTEXT: Globally, doctor-patient communication is becoming synonymous with high-quality health care in the 21st century. However, what is meant by 'good communication' and whether there is consensus internationally remain unclear.
OBJECTIVES: Here, we characterise understandings of 'good communication' in future doctors from medical schools in three contextually contrasting continents. Given locally specific socio-cultural influences, we hypothesised that there would be a lack of global consensus on what constitutes 'good communication'.
METHODS: A standardised two-phase methodology was applied in turn to each of three medical schools in the UK, Egypt and India (n = 107 subjects), respectively, in which students were asked: 'What is good communication?' Phase I involved exploratory focus groups to define preliminary themes (mean number of participants per site: 17). Phase II involved thematic confirmation and expansion in one-to-one semi-structured interviews (mean number of participants per site: 18; mean hours of dialogue captured per site: 55). Findings were triangulated and analysed using grounded theory.
RESULTS: The overarching theme that emerged from medical students was that 'good communication' requires adherence to certain 'rules of communication'. A shared rule that doctors must communicate effectively despite perceived disempowerment emerged across all sites. However, contradictory culturally specific rules about communication were identified in relation to three major domains: family; gender, and emotional expression. Egyptian students perceived emotional aspects of Western doctors' communication strikingly negatively, viewing these doctors as problematically cold and unresponsive.
CONCLUSIONS: Contradictory perceptions of 'good communication' in future doctors are found cross-continentally and may contribute to prevalent cultural misunderstandings in medicine. The lack of global consensus on what defines good communication challenges prescriptively taught Western 'patient-centredness' and questions assumptions about international transferability. Health care professionals must be educated openly about flexible, context-specific communication patterns so that they can avoid cultural incompetence and tailor behaviours in ways that optimise therapeutic outcomes wherever they work around the globe.