For Residents: How to Talk to Medical Doctors

Talking to a medical doctor is not like talking to a normal person.  In a regular conversation, one person says, “Hi.  How are you?”  The other says, “Fine.  And yourself?” And they go from there.  If busy Dr. Shah stops by Ms. Crenshaw’s room, inquires how she is, and hears that she’s “Fine,” he’s likely to be on to the next room before Ms. Crenshaw can utter another word.  I prefer the Newspaper Headline Approach.


Newspapers grab the attention of readers by revealing the most important and tantalizing details first, so we’re compelled to read on. The same approach, applied to a visit from a physician, would look like this:


Dr. Shah:  “Hi.  How are you, Ms. Crenshaw?”

Ms. Crenshaw’s headline:  “I Have Pain.”


Now she has Dr. Shah’s attention and he will almost certainly ask her where she has pain and other follow up questions.


Another possible headline:  “I Have Two Things I Want to Discuss with You.”


This indicates to Dr. Shah that he’s going to need to stick around after the first issue is complete, and it helps him estimate how much time he can spend on each matter.  Following the Newspaper Headline Approach, the most important problem is revealed first.  This way, if Dr. Shah has to leave, at least Ms. Crenshaw had her most pressing concern addressed, and her doctor is aware there is more to be discussed.


Perhaps all this sounds simple, but it’s surprisingly difficult not to answer the question, “How are you?” with the response, “Fine,” even when we’re not.  It takes practice to resist the temptation and tell the physician, from the start, what’s really going on.

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