Nonverbal communication is an important part of the patient-provider relationship, and it often goes unnoticed, says a University of Arizona communication professor.

New research suggests that nonverbal communication in health care can have a measurable effect on physical and mental health and can contribute to physician selection by patients and what recommendations from their physicians that people follow through with.

Professor Chris Segrin studies nonverbal communication, and he says that the vast majority of meaning between two people is conveyed through it.

“It’s not what you say; it’s how you say it,” Segrin says.

Nonverbal communication is especially important in the patient-physician relationship, he says, because medical interactions between patients and providers are essentially persuasive.

If a physician has good “bedside manners,” in which he or she expresses interest, concern, empathy and involvement, the patient is more likely to listen to recommendations to start a diet, quit smoking or begin exercising, Segrin says.

For mental health providers, patients are more likely to return if they feel the providers care about them and are willing to listen to them.

Patients will be more inclined to follow the advice of doctors if they express positive nonverbal communication through eye contact, posture, gestures, tone of voice, speech rate, listening skills and more.

It is important for physicians and health care providers to learn these skills, Segrin says. Historically, nonverbal communication has been ignored, but now is being incorporated into curriculums.

Nonverbal communication skills are learned over a lifetime, he says, and it’s not likely people will be able to change their habits quickly. Training people with experience, and showing them what really matters, will inspire better nonverbal communication skills, he says.

Ashley Grove is a journalism student and an intern for Arizona Public Media.