How To Listen So Patients Will Talk

I wish that in medical school and residency we had spent more time learning how to communicate.  We finish training stuffed with knowledge (think a brat on a grill!) but are horrible at distilling that knowledge to help people.  As a hospitalist I have tried to hone my interviewing skills, but feel that I could use some improvement.   Here’s my own two cents on how to interview a patient  (of course, I’m a doctor, I’ve got an opinion!):

1) Read the chart before you go in.  I have gone back and forth on this, wanting the patient to tell me what was wrong in their own words, but finally have settled on, “Hello, Mr. Hurting, I understand you have had chest pain (or warts, or whatever) for the past two days (weeks, months, decades…).  Could you tell me more about it?”  I have started doing it this way, because, when I used to say, “Hello, Mr. Hurting, what brings you to the ED today?”  inevitably I would get a wisecrack like, “My wife.”  or “The ambulance.”  I’m hoping my chart reading before hand makes me look smarter!  (I have a personal theory that if I had a British accent, I would appear smarter, but that’s a whole different blog.)

2) Please slow down, and don’t interrupt the patient.  Let them get their spiel out, before you jump in with the questions.   Try not to turn the interview into an interrogation.

3) Review the medication list (the med rec, which I think is your best friend!) every time, using trade and generic names.  Many patients will know one or the other, but not both.  Hopefully you will not encounter the dreaded, “I take the little peach pill” scenario.

4) Try to answer the following questions:
–what is my diagnosis –(why am I sick?)

–what will happen next?  (What tests, treatments, other specialists?)

–when will I be informed of the test results?

–will it hurt?

–when will I get out of here (the hospital)?

–and of course, when can I eat?

5) For pity’s sake, introduce yourself and shake hands!  (I know, this post is slanted towards hospitalists today.)  Give the patient and family a card.  I occasionally give my pager number to so called “needy” families.  I find that they take comfort knowing they can get hold of me, and seldom abuse this.  I must note that some of my colleagues frown on this.  (“We don’t do that,” one of them said frostily.)

6) Always ask, “Do you have any other questions or concerns you want to share with me?” before concluding the interview.  I also tell patients and families how they can get hold of me.  (“Ask your nurse to page me.  We have someone here 24/7.”)

Please feel free to share your suggestions.  My communication skills are a work in progress, and I bet yours are too!

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