How come my doctor asks so many questions? I only have a sore throat!
Too busy, Eagle
How come my doctor won't treat everything I tell him/her about and sometimes will barely talk to me because the computer gets in the way?
Dear Busy and Confused,
These were often questions on my patient's minds as well. Simply put, our ability to communicate, and perhaps our opposable thumbs are what makes us both unique and the dominant species on Earth. It sounds so simple, and simple things can be so deceiving.
Despite tremendous communication advances, talking is one of the most challenging, complex and difficult things we do every day. There are many factors, but first it should be looked at as a partnership between the communicator and the listener. The bottom line is, listening is hard! Take the grade school "telephone" game where a story teller whispers a story to another person who then passes it on again until the last person comically relates a quite different story back to the original teller.
Our judicial system prompts us to "Tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth." Now the challenge is on the teller. It is hard to be precise and accurate, and recall all the details. It's even more difficult to always be honest.
For many reasons, a person may be unable or unwilling to communicate. There may be a language barrier, or perhaps a child doesn't have the vocabulary or sophistication to communicate (thus the temper tantrums of a 2 year old!). There may be medical problems that prevents communication, and the most damaging obstacle is refusal, which breaks down trust and undermines the relationship. And of course, the listener may be physically unable to listen or just disinterested. We have all heard the expression "You didn't hear a word I said!"
One of the most complex things we communicate is our health to our physicians. Generally the stage has been set well. The surroundings are comfortable, there's not much distance between you and your provider and it's quiet. The computer can be a significant barrier if it distracts from good eye contact or the use of helpful body language, which plays not only into the thoughts expressed, but also how they are perceived. Physical touch can be empathetic, caring, compassionate and it can draw both people in. It is not appropriate for every communication, but again a computer can take that possibility away.
Time is an important thing to consider as well. As a patient then, it's important to plan ahead. Have the information in hand that you want to share or might expect to be asked. That includes what medicines you are taking (both prescribed and over the counter), a brief history of your condition (when it started, how its course has run, what you have done for it, who else you saw for it and what made it better or worse), and how it is affecting your life, family, home and work. If it is your first visit, you may fill out a form or be asked those questions by a nurse or medical assistant. Otherwise, your provider will hone in on your problem as well as how it might relate to your other conditions. The best providers will also inquire about other important health matters like your weight, tobacco use, immunization status and age-recommended screenings. After all, prevention is the best medicine. Come prepared and be thankful for the excellent doctor who asks those extra questions, as one could change your life for the better.
Dr. Drew Werner is a board certified family physician living in Eagle. Email comments about this column to firstname.lastname@example.org.