In last week’s blog about getting to know patients, I referred to one PA’s suggestion that physicians try to learn 65 things about their patients. After posting it, I realized that was a bit ambitious. Probably learning a dozen — or even a half dozen — things about a patient would be plenty.
This point became especially clear over the weekend, when I found myself at a going-away party being held for a friend — at the house of my primary care physician. Now, I grew up in a small town in New England where we often ran into our doctors around town. I know the rule: No talk about our own health problems unless we’re actually in the doctor’s office. (The same is true with small animal vets, but we used to talk to large-animal vets about large-animal problems no matter where we saw them. Go figure.) But I sometimes suffer from shyness, and my primary care doctor, I know, is also a little shy. The meeting, I realized, could be awkward. I decided to do what I tell my children to do when they’re feeling tongue tied. Think of just three questions you can ask the person who’s making you feel nervous. And then a whole conversation generally opens up.
So when I saw my doctor in his kitchen I walked right up, shook his hand, and said hello. I told him I was impressed at how smoothly his office was running these days; he explained that they had a new office manager and that “support staff makes all the difference.” I asked him where he grew up (he said LA and claimed he was proud of it). And I asked him how he came to open a part-time travel clinic in a different town. He explained that he had lived in Kenya for 10 weeks during his medical training.
And then the conversation began to flow. I talked about how I lived in Belize for four months during graduate school and how I’ll never, ever go there as a tourist. I told him I grew up in Connecticut; he answered that his wife was from Maine, where, it just so happens, much of my family has lived. We talked about school district politics in our town (his wife is a teacher and both of our k ids are in the public school system) and we talked about the importance of helmets for kids on skateboards, scooters, and roller blades.
All of this took, maybe, 10 minutes. And you know what? Next time I see him in the office with a medical concern, we’ll have a more solid relationship.