Thursday, February 08, 2007

On Not Listening to the Answer

As I have mentioned before, one of my jobs is helping to teach communication skills to medical students and other health professionals, usually with the use of roleplay.

One of the mistakes the students habitually make is that, in their haste to think of the next question to ask, they don’t listen to the answer you have just given and hence they give a completely inappropriate response. It’s particularly likely to happen to the ones who, in a state of near-panic, are going through a checklist in their heads.

So you get something like this:

“So you’re Mrs. Claire Green?”

“Yes, that’s right.”

“Good. And you’ve been suffering from irritable bowel syndrome for five years?”


“Lovely. And are both your parents alive and well?”

“No, we were all in a plane that crashed in Canada when I was a child. I ate both my parents and then I was brought up by wolves.”

“Excellent. And are you on any medication?”

- Oh, all right, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but you get the general idea. And it happened to me last week. For real! With a real Medical Person.

I had gone for a mammogram (and, thankfully, the result was fine, or I wouldn’t be making so light of it).

So, after a few questions about age, date of birth etc, she asked:

“And have you had a mammogram before?”

“Yes, in 2003.”

“Excellent. But you were surely a bit young to be on the programme. Was there any reason for it?”

“Yes. My mother was given a drug called Stilboestrol when she was pregnant with me and it has doubled my risk of breast cancer.”

“Brilliant! Well, if you’d like to take off your top - - “

If this sort of thing happens to you, I would ask you to stop, look at them in a puzzled manner and ask them very sweetly to repeat what they just said. If we all do it, every time, eventually they might all start to listen properly, and not just talk to us in automatic talking-to-patient-speak. And that would be a very good thing for the future of medical care.


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