Stop, Collaborate and Listen

Recent studies have shown that the average doctor interrupts his or her patients eighteen seconds into taking a history. Eighteen. Seconds. Consider what a tiny amount of time that really is for a patient to tell his story to the doctor he has waited four hours to see. The dialogue usually goes something like this:

Dr: So Mr Smith, can you tell me what the problem is today?

Patient: Well you see, lately I’ve been feeling rather short of breath and sometimes I get chest pain…

Dr: [INTERRUPTS] I see. We’ll order a chest xray and an ECG and then see how we go from there.

Mr Smith was actually there because he has recently been retrenched and is feeling extremely anxious and stressed. But we don’t give the patients time to tell us that. We make our minds up about a patient’s diagnosis after a quarter of a minute, and then interrupt them so we can finish up quickly and see the next patient. I get it. I work in a clinic now where the doctors see 40 to 50 patients in a day. That’s about six patients an hour, or a ten minute consultation time. Ten minutes is not a long time to spend with patients, but eighteen seconds is a whopping three percent of that consultation time. Perhaps if we gave patients more time to talk, we might avoid unnecessary or invasive tests. We might avoid a follow up appointment. And more importantly, we might avoid a dissatisfied patient. Patients just want someone to hear them. And if you listen to your patients, they’re going to think you’re a better doctor.

I think there are a lot of things that contribute to us not listening to our patients. We feel overwhelmed by the number of patients and try to hurry the consultation, we’re stressed by other things which still require our attention, we’re distracted by hunger or fatigue, and so on. Here’s the thing though; I don’t think poor listening skills are a doctor problem. I think it’s a people problem. It’s a problem of listening to reply rather than to understand. It’s a problem of trying to listen while playing on Facebook (and science has proven that humans actually cannot multitask). It’s a problem of thinking of a million things at once, and not being focused on the speaker in front of us.

I believe that an effective listener is one who is actively engaged in a conversation, waits for the speaker to complete his sentence before replying, and responds to what the speaker has said in a heartfelt and sincere matter. The listener does not necessarily have to agree with the speaker but because he was present enough in that moment to listen wholeheartedly to the conversation his response, regardless of what that is, comes from a place of respect for the listener. Because isn’t that what good listening is about? Respecting the individual enough to allow them to let their voice be heard.

As children, when my brother and I disobeyed something my mom had said, she would retort with a question of, “What are those things on the side of your head?!” We would then forlornly reply that they were ears, with the conclusion being reached that if you had ears you were therefore supposed to listen to your mother.But having a set of functional auditory organs is not guarantee that you can listen, or at least listen well. I think it’s a skill that many of us lack, and I feel that communication as a whole could be improved if we just took the time to listen.

Let’s try today to be better listeners, in order that we may be better doctors, friends, partners and colleagues. Let’s listen to understand. And for heavens’ sake, let’s listen for longer that eighteen seconds!

Thanks for stopping by ❀ And sorry I got that vanilla Ice song stuck in your head!

G xxx


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