Recognizing Patients’ Emotions: Teaching Health Care Providers to Interpret Facial Expressions

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Facial expressions are an important clue to a patient’s emotions. The authors developed a 90-minute workshop in May 2011 to teach physicians and physicians-in-training to interpret facial expressions and to use that skill in the context of patient care.


The workshop included a didactic presentation in which facial expression features were taught using progressively more difficult examples, followed by three interactive exercises. The authors presented the workshop at six separate venues in the United States in 2011 and 2012. To test the effectiveness of this workshop, the authors designed a comprehensive pre- and postworkshop evaluation which assessed participants’ skill, knowledge, attitude (toward importance), and confidence.


A total of 156 health care providers participated in the workshop and completed pre- and postworkshop evaluations. Participants showed substantial improvement in skill and knowledge (fact- and case-based) scores, as well as modest improvement in importance and confidence ratings. Faculty and medical students demonstrated similar baseline measures of skill, knowledge, and importance, though faculty reported a slightly higher confidence in their skills. No correlation was found between baseline ratings of confidence in abilities and any baseline measure of performance.


Given the similar baseline performance of faculty and medical students, the ability to interpret facial expressions does not appear to be learned through routine clinical practice, highlighting the need for dedicated facial expression training. The authors were able to demonstrate that physicians and physicians-in-training could effectively learn to recognize emotion by interpreting facial expressions through a short workshop.

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