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Doctor and patient
Photo courtesy of NIH

SAN DIEGO—A new study suggests patients with advanced cancer may prefer doctors who do not use a computer while communicating with them.

Most of the 120 patients studied said they preferred face-to-face consultations in which a doctor used a notepad rather than a computer.

Doctors who did not use a computer were perceived as more compassionate, communicative, and professional.

These findings were presented at the 2017 Palliative and Supportive Care in Oncology Symposium (abstract 26*).

“To our knowledge, this is the only study that compares exam room interactions between people with advanced cancer and their physicians, with or without a computer present,” said study investigator Ali Haider, MD, of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

For this study, Dr Haider and his colleagues enrolled 120 patients with localized, recurrent, or metastatic disease. The patients’ median ECOG performance status was 2.

All patients were English speakers, they had a median age of 58 (range, 44-66), and 55% were female. Sixty-seven percent of patients were white, 18% were Hispanic, 13% were African American, and 2% were “other.” Forty-one percent of patients had completed college.

According to the Edmonton Symptom Assessment System, patients’ median pain score was 5 (range, 2-7), and their median fatigue score was 4 (range, 3-7). According to the Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale, patients’ median anxiety score was 6 (range, 4-8), and their median depression score was 6 (range, 4-9).

The intervention

The investigators randomly assigned patients to watch different videos showing doctor-patient interactions with and without computer use. The team had filmed 4 short videos that featured actors playing the parts of doctor and patient.

All study participants were blinded to the hypothesis of the study. The actors were carefully scripted and used the same gestures, expressions, and other nonverbal communication in each video to minimize bias.

Video 1 involved Doctor A in a face-to-face consultation with just a notepad in hand, and Video 2 involved Doctor A in a consultation using a computer.

Video 3 involved Doctor B in a face-to-face consultation with just a notepad in hand, and Video 4 involved Doctor B in a consultation using a computer.

Doctors A and B looked similar, which was intended to minimize bias.

After viewing their first video, patients completed a validated questionnaire rating the doctor’s communication skills, professionalism, and compassion.

Subsequently, each group was assigned to a video topic (face-to-face or computer) they had not viewed previously featuring the doctor they had not viewed in the first video.

A follow-up questionnaire was given after this round of viewing, and the patients were also asked to rate their overall physician preference.


After the first round of viewing, the patients gave better ratings to doctors (A or B) in the face-to-face videos than in the computer videos. Face-to-face doctors were rated significantly higher for compassion (P=0.0003), communication skills (P=0.0012), and professionalism (P=0.0001).

After patients had watched both videos, doctors in the face-to-face videos still had better scores for compassion, communication, and professionalism (P<0.001 for all).

Most patients (72%) said they preferred the face-to-face consultation, while 8% said they preferred the computer consultation, and 20% said they had no preference.

Dr Haider said a possible explanation for these findings is that patients with serious chronic illnesses might value undivided attention from their physicians, and patients might perceive providers using computers as more distracted or multitasking during visits.

“We know that having a good rapport with patients can be extremely beneficial for their health,” Dr Haider said. “Patients with advanced disease need the cues that come with direct interaction to help them along with their care.”

However, Dr Haider also noted that additional research is needed to confirm these results. And he said perceptions might be different in a younger population with higher computer literacy.

*Data in the abstract differ from the presentation.

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