Physicians Interviewing Patients

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The secret is listening & soft skills

Politicians are interviewed by the press, job seekers are interviewed by prospective employers, and criminal suspects are interviewed by police.

Yet the most important question-and-answer exchange someone might ever experience is a physician interviewing a patient.

It starts with an introduction that suggests doctor and patient are in an equal relationship, suggests Smith’s “Patient-Centered Interviewing”, an evidence-based guide for physicians.

To establish equal footing, use both first and last names. Say, “Hello, John Jones. I’m Mary Smith, your doctor.” Avoid saying, “Hi, John. I’m Dr. Smith.”

Claire Galloway, an activist and author, is an advocate for physicians spending more time listening to patients. Studies show that when patients are given the chance to answer open-ended questions about their health, 80 percent of them give a complete response in two minutes or less, so there is usually no need to rush.

Galloway says that when doctors don't take patient concerns seriously, it's a symptom of a power imbalance between patient and physician.

She says her son suffered a brain injury in a playground accident when he was two that was not diagnosed until he was 18. She wrote about it in the book A Call to Mind: A Story of Undiagnosed Childhood Traumatic Brain Injury.

"Doctors have been trained to listen, to diagnose, to treat every patient to the best of their ability, and to do no harm," she says. "It can be a serious problem when that training breaks down and patients' symptoms go unaddressed."

She recommends that healthcare professionals be periodically retrained to become better listeners to better handle cases that aren't readily diagnosed. Doctors also should be retrained on soft skills, such as showing greater empathy in interviewing patients.

Alicia Lazzaro