Opening clinical encounters in an adult musculoskeletal setting

Effective communication between healthcare professionals and their patients is critical for successful consultations, and can have a significant effect on patients’ adherence to treatment. Despite this evidence, communication within the physiotherapy profession is still underexplored, in particular, how ‘best’ to open clinical encounters. This study explores the issue by seeking the preferences of physiotherapists for opening encounters in the adult musculoskeletal outpatient setting. Initially, 42 consultations and 17 first follow-up encounters were observed between qualified physiotherapists and patients with back pain. These encounters were audio-recorded, analysed and used to develop a questionnaire to determine clinicians’ preferences for opening encounters. From these findings, a synopsis of the questionnaire was posted on the four most-relevant professional networks of the national, interactive Chartered Society of Physiotherapy (iCSP) website, to canvass opinion more widely. Among the 43 physiotherapists who responded, the preferred ‘key clinical question’ for an initial encounter was: “Do you want to just tell me a little bit about [your ‘problem presentation’] first of all?”; and for follow-up encounters: ‘How have you been since I last saw you?’

These results offer an important and novel contribution to the profession, as debate on this issue has not previously been published. Despite the small sample size in this study, the aim of this paper is to create reflection and debate among clinicians on their preferences for opening patient encounters and optimising the non-specific treatment effects.