Background: The literature, field research, and daily practice stress the need for adequate communication in palliative care. Although language is of the utmost importance in communication, linguistic analysis of end-of-life discussions is scarce.
Aims: Our aim is twofold: we want to determine what the use of four significant Dutch modal verbs expressing volition, obligation, possibility, and permission reveals about the concept of unbearable suffering and about physicians’ communicative style.
Methods: We quantitatively (TextStat) and qualitatively (bottom-up approach) analysed the use of the modal verbs in 15 interviews with patients requesting euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide, their physicians, and their closest relatives.
Results: An essential element of unbearable suffering is the patient’s incapacity to perform certain tasks. Further, the physician’s preference for particular modal verbs reveals whether his attitude towards patients is more or less patronising and more or less appreciative.
Conclusions: Linguistic analysis can help medical professionals to better understand their communicative skills, styles, and approach to patients in end-of-life situations. We have shown how linguistic analysis can contribute to a better understanding of physician–patient interaction. Moreover, we have illustrated the usefulness of interdisciplinary research in the medical domain.