In recent decades developments and progress in medicine are strongly technology-driven. E-health, social robots, and AI are strong drivers of innovations in the clinic. However, all this should not detract from the crucial role that is played by the narratives in which the communication between the health professionals (doctors, nurses, etc.) and patients is embedded. Words are not harmless.

Words can contribute substantially to improvements in health, but they can also act in a nociceptive manner. Brain imaging research has convincingly shown that language has effects on how we perceive the world and act on it. The attraction that alternative medical practices have, is largely or solely based on the narratives in which they are embedded. The further technological developments in medicine make it all the more urgent to investigate how these developments should be integrated into effective communication practices.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made this very clear. Communications behind face masks, with physical distance, video consults, zoom meetings, etc. all have a substantial impact on the interaction between health professionals and patients. How we formulate our messages, which multisensory signals (co-speech gestures, eye gaze) could compensate, to what extent the emotional prosody needs to be upregulated under these conditions, are all recent questions in urgent need of an answer.

The Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics and the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition, and Behaviour, both in Nijmegen, are world-leading research institutes working on furthering our understanding of language and communication. We do research on how listeners understand spoken words, and how speakers select and produce on average three words per second. But also, on how speakers and listeners align in conversations, and on what a listener infers from the speaker’s utterance. For instance, it has been found that patients interpret the same message very differently depending on how it is packaged into words. If the patient hears that there is a 90% chance of survival, this leads to a very different reaction than the message that there is a 10% chance of death. Same information, but packaged in a different way. This is only one example among many. Language matters, the concomitant non-verbal communication signals (co-speech gestures, eye gaze, body language) matter. How information is packaged in multisensory signals will co-determine the effectiveness of treatments.

Patient-centered outcomes focus attention on a patient’s beliefs, opinions, and needs in conjunction with a physician’s medical expertise and assessment.

The technological developments in medicine (drugs, wearables, imaging, etc.) are very important. But these should not let us forget that a holistic approach that puts the patient (and not the organ) at center stage requires that these developments are embedded in a joint narrative, including both patients and health professionals. The human brain has equipped us with the uniquely human capacity for language. It is by far the most powerful system for the accumulation and exchange of information. We should use this capacity optimally for supporting health in both prevention and treatment of disease.

This post was written by Peter Hagoort