Mishler (The discourse of medicine. The dialectics of medical interviews. Norwood, NJ: Abler), applying Habermas's theory of Communicative Action to medical encounters, showed how the struggle between the voice of medicine and the voice of the lifeworld fragmented and suppressed patients' multi-faceted, contextualised and meaningful accounts. This paper investigates and critiques Mishler's premise that this results in inhumane, ineffective medical care. Using a more complex data collection strategy, comprising patient interviews, doctor interviews and transcribed consultations we show more complex relations than emerged from Mishlers analysis. We found four communication patterns across 35 general practice case studies. When doctor and patient both used the voice of medicine exclusively (acute physical complaints) this worked For simple unitary problems (Strictly, Medicine). When both doctor and patient engaged with the lifeworld, more of the agenda was voiced (Mutual Lifeworld) and patients were recognised as unique human beings (psychological plus physical problems). Poorest outcomes occurred where patients used the voice of the lifeworld but were ignored (Lifeworld Ignored) or blocked (Lifeworld Blocked) by doctors' use of voice of medicine (chronic physical complaints). The analysis supports the premise that increased use of the lifeworld makes for better outcomes and more humane treatment of patients as unique human beings. Some doctors switched communication strategies in different consultations. which suggests that their behaviour might be open to change. If doctors could be sensitised to the importance of dealing with the concerns of the lifeworld for patients with chronic physical conditions as well as psychological conditions, it might be possible to obtain better care for patients. This would require attention to structural aspects of the healthcare system to enable doctors to work fully within the patient-centred model. (C) 2001 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved.