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Doctors Interrupting Patients Can Impact Our Health

Doctors Interrupt-Us!

Everyone has a long-winded friend or relative who tells the longest stories, leaving you to wonder if it will ever end. It’s tough not to interrupt the speaker when you are on the receiving side of that type of story. What if it turns out that you are the long-winded story teller who others want to interrupt?  There’s a good chance you have been treated that way.  In your doctor’s office. Doctors are interrupting patients frequently and it can negative impact our health and our care.

Doctors frequently interrupt patients while they are telling their medical tale during an appointment.  Studies have shown that doctors are interrupting patients just 12 seconds into their opening statements describing their symptoms and issues – both in emergency departments and in primary care offices.

doctor speaking with patient: Doctors interrupting patientsNot only are patients being interrupted soon after they start talking, in many cases they are prevented from completing their story.  In one study, only 23% of patients were given the chance to finish their opening statement describing their concerns.  It is dismaying to learn that doctors frequently don’t have the time and/or inclination to listen to their patients’ statements or stories.

Why is this important?

This can be a significant issue because telling your whole story can help your doctor diagnose and treat you.  It’s been said that somewhere between 70% – 90% of medical diagnoses are made based on the patient’s story, so simple math tells us that not being able to tell our stories can impact our diagnoses.

When doctors (and other medical professionals) interrupt patients, patients can easily lose their train of thought, causing them to leave out important details.  When a doctor takes control of the conversation and steers patients to another topic, this could move the focus of the appointment in the wrong direction.

Up to 30% of the time doctors completely miss why the patient is even there!

Why are doctors interrupting patients so quickly?

Doctors must see many patients each day with a tight time schedule, sometimes causing them to rush.  When a doctor thinks he/she has heard enough of the patient’s story to dictate next steps, he/she may interrupt to move things forward or redirect the conversation.  Of course, communication habits play a role as well.  There are some people who just cannot resist the urge to interrupt – doctors included!

How long would patients speak if given a chance?

Many doctors fear that if they don’t interrupt their patients, the patients will go on for an excessive amount of time, putting even more pressure on the doctor’s already tight schedule.  However, that is probably not a well-founded fear. One study found that patients spoke for an average of 92 seconds when they were not interrupted.  Additionally, the research found that 78% of patients had finished their initial statement in two minutes. Only a small percentage talked for longer than five minutes.

What can you do?

Prepare and persist.

  • Before you go to the doctor, write out your narrative story.  What symptoms are you experiencing?  When?  What are you doing when it occurs?  How is it impacting your life?
  • At the beginning of your appointment, make sure you tell your doctor why you are there and what your goals are for the appointment.
  • Refer to your written notes while telling your story. If your doctor interrupts you, get back on track.
  • If you think your doctor is veering in the wrong direction, speak up. For instance, you could say “I hear you focusing on my stomach, but what is really bothering me is my head.”

For more tips on how to get the most out of your medical appointments, read our blog posts: 6 steps to be more engaged in your care and 10 tips for a better medical appointment.

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