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British GPs are rated among the best communicators in Europe by their patients, reveals a major new survey.

Only the Swiss rated their doctors' communication skills more highly than the British in the telephone survey of 8,000 patients in eight European countries.

When asked to grade overall communication skills, UK patients gave their GPs an average score of 4.21 out of 5 ­ against a European average of 3.97.

British GPs came top of the European league table for involving patients in decisions about tests and treatment ­ and ranked second for their skill in explaining things in ways patients could understand.

The findings, from the Picker Institute ­ an approved contractor for NHS patient surveys ­ come at a time when GPs are expressing fears that Government policy will fragment general practice and threaten the ethos of the

doctor-patient relationship.

Study co-author Professor Angela Coulter, chief executive of the institute, said: 'This reflects the strengths of general practice in this country compared with the rest of Europe. GPs here are good communicators.'

She said it was very important that GPs coming to work in the NHS had good communication skills beyond mastery of the English language.

RCGP chair Dr Mayur Lakhani said: 'We have majored in world-class consultation skills ­ I'm really proud of that.

'But we must not take our eye off the ball. We have to guard against a reductionist approach that puts patients into compartments.'

Dr Yann LeFeuvre, a French GP who moved to Britain in 2003 and now works in south-east London, said: 'The doctor-patient relationship in France is a bit different because there's lots of money involved. Patients are not as mature as in England.'

The results were published early online last week by the European Journal of Public Health.

Patients were surveyed in the UK, Switzerland, Sweden, Germany, Italy, Spain, Poland and Slovenia.

By Rob Finch

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