HealthDay News — Healthcare providers who make direct eye contact and engage in a moderate amount of social touch are perceived by patients as being more empathetic, particularly during short visits, study findings indicate.

It is well known that longer patient encounters are associated with higher patient perception of a clinician’s empathy, but little is known about how nonverbal behaviors affect the clinician-patient encounter — an area of particular interest as electronic health records and health information technology use becomes more widespread.

To better understand the issue, Enid Montague, PhD, of the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, and colleagues reviewed 110 videotaped clinical encounters. They then asked patients to fill out questionnaires to assess the association between nonverbal communication behaviors and their perceptions of clinician empathy.

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Eye contact was positively linked with the patient’s assessment of clinician empathy and rating of attributes, such as connectedness with the clinician and how much they liked the clinician, the researchers found.

However, the affect of eye contact on empathy scores was mediated by visit length — with eye contact increasing empathy scores more when the visit length is short and less as the visit is longer.

Social touch also was also positively associated with perception of clinician empathy. “Specifically, patient ratings of liking and connectedness increased with social touch to a point, but decreased when done in excess,” the researchers wrote.

“Future research should translate nonverbal interaction needs, such as eye contact, into design guidelines for health information technologies used in face-to-face encounters,” Montague and colleagues wrote. “These guidelines should also be incorporated into training for clinicians who must use technologies to provide care.”


  1. Montague E et al. J Particip Med. 2013; 5:e33.