The art of storytelling is as old as the spoken word. It’s an important part of every culture, race and religion. It entertains, but also informs, intrigues and connects mankind across time and space.
Most people enjoy reading or listening to stories at their leisure. The health care provider, on the other hand, listens to stories all day long because it’s part of his job. The first thing he does when he sits down with a patient is to elicit the history, or story, of the patient’s illness. It forms the basis of all that follows: performing the physical examination, arriving at a diagnosis, and formulating a treatment plan for the patient.
The health care provider listens for specific details that help him make the diagnosis. If the patient’s problem is pain, the provider needs to know where the patient feels it, whether it’s sharp or dull, steady or throbbing, constant or intermittent. He needs to know how long the patient has had the pain—for a day? For a week? For years? What makes it worse? What makes it better? For example, the pain associated with a migraine headache is throbbing whereas in a tension headache it is usually steady. Gallbladder pain can come and go for months whereas the patient with appendicitis has steady pain and usually seeks medical care within a day or two. These are important details.
The problem is that patients don’t know what the physician needs to hear. They don’t arrive at the office with a list of relevant signs and symptoms. It’s the provider’s job to ask about them, but he has only so much time to get to the bottom of the patient’s problem.
For this reason, doctors often redirect the patient who appears to be getting off-track or is slow coming up with answers. In fact, one frequently quoted study found that most physicians interrupt and redirect the patient when they are as few as 18 seconds into the interview. Frequent redirection leads the patient to believe that what he wants to say isn’t important or relevant. Instead, he tries to give the doctor the information he needs while other parts of the story go untold.
Let’s say the patient presents with a three day history of abdominal pain. He answers all of his doctor’s questions. The pain has been present for four days. It started in his upper abdomen, but now it is diffuse. The pain is constant and it radiates into his back. Eating makes it worse. In fact, the patient says he hasn’t been able to keep anything down for the past two days. After a focused physical exam, and after running a few tests, the physician correctly diagnoses him with acute pancreatitis. But that doesn’t explain why the patient starts to complain of a headache, has trouble keeping his balance and appears confused twenty-four hours after being admitted to the hospital.
What the doctor doesn’t know is that the patient has been drinking heavily because his wife walked out on him recently. In fact, he blacked out a couple of days ago and he woke up on the floor next to the bed. The patient didn’t mention it because he was busy answering the doctor’s questions about his stomach ache. So the doctor missed the small subdural bleed the patient sustained during the fall until days later when he finally developed symptoms.
This is a theoretical scenario but it highlights an important problem. Obtaining an accurate and complete medical history takes time. When the patient is constantly redirected in order to satisfy the provider’s agenda, important parts of the story may be left out.
This reinforces the importance of the patient’s narrative in medicine. It isn’t just “nice” to know the whole story. Besides being a sign of respect and concern, the ability to listen to the patient can be a life-saving skill.
"You treat a disease:
you win, you lose.
You treat a person:
I guarantee you win--
no matter what the outcome."