Taking the time to answer patient questions

I was working in the bone marrow transplant clinic of an internationally known cancer center.  When I looked into the patient’s faces,  I saw hope as they were being worked up for a possible transplant.

I went into see a new patient.  She had leukemia and had relapsed after her remission.  Her sister would be the donor.

Gretchen, age 19 came in with her mom for the appointment.  She was tall, youthful looking and had a twinkle in her eye.  Yet, I found  out, she rarely spoke.

I introduced myself and explained to Gretchen this appointment was to answer her  questions she would have regarding her upcoming bone marrow transplant.

“So what questions do you have Gretchen?” I asked her three different times.

Each time, Gretchen did the same thing, she looked at me, then at her mom, then at her mom’s purse, then back at me.  She didn’t say anything, nor did her mom.

“Hmm, I thought to myself, I certainly would have questions if I was looking at being admitted for a bone marrow transplant.”  So once more I asked Gretchen whether she had any questions, but this time I looked her straight in the eyes and said, “Gretchen I’m not going anywhere, I’m not going to leave this exam room until all of your questions have been answered.  So let’s start with your first one, what is it?”

Gretchen looked at her mother, and pointed to the purse.  Her mom lifted her purse, pulled out 2 sheets of paper and handed them to Gretchen, who handed them to me.

I opened the two folded sheets, tattered and worn, and realized answering all of her questions was going to take a long, long while.  I looked over her list of 30 questions and immediately realized that she had been carrying it around with her since she was first diagnosed with leukemia 18 months ago.  She had just been adding questions to her list ever since, because she wasn’t comfortable with asking anyone.

She had gone through a whole treatment program, with no one answering her  questions.  And yet she was willing to trust me with her treasured, worn list of questions.  I was honored.

As I thought back over the afternoon episode with Gretchen I realized something very important.  Gretchen was probably like a lot of patients we see in medicine.  We as providers get so busy and cram our clinic schedule so full that we don’t take the time, when it’s needed to answer our patient’s questions.  In so doing, we have done them a  disservice.  Patients are not comfortable enough to stop us and ask their questions.  We as providers don’t give them permission to ask their questions because we don’t portray the body language necessary for the patients to know they are important.

We as providers need to learn to communicate better, take the time to answer our patients questions, put our patients as ease, so they can acquire better health for themselves.

Sharon Bahrych is a physician assistant who blogs at A PA View on Medicine.

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