Blog | Friday, October 21, 2011

There's always something new to learn

There they were, little maroon flags outside three patient exam room doors. You could almost hear the game show host ask the question:

Will it be Door #1, Door #2, or Door #3?"

So I asked the medical assistant, "Who's next?" and she pointed me to Door #2.

It was a new patient with a familiar problem, one I've seen probably a thousand times before. Another day, another case. Bada bing, bada boom. Nothing to it. You would think that all cases, and all people are the same in some ways. Certainly, those managing our health care system of the future would like us to believe it's so simple: just another case of heart failure (what can go wrong?) or supraventricular tachycardia (love that one, there's NOTHING hard about that!) or maybe a few PVCs (Check). Another day, another dollar.

I suppose it would be easy to classify patients that way, after all, I'm now just a "proceduralist for the heart electrical system" in the eyes of many these days. But there is something that I always find myself looking for with each new patient I see: The Question.

The Question is the query that irreversibly connects you with the patient. It's not the details of the history of present illness or the past medical or surgical history, rather, it's The Question that makes the patient look at you in a slightly different way. It's The Question that makes them realize you're human. It's The Question that lets them know you're interested. It's The Question that is outside the rubric of medical history taking. It's The Question that keeps you coming back for more, day in and day out.

The cool thing about The Question is it's usually different for every patient. In fact, it is invariably unique to a given patient. The challenge for every doctor is finding it. And the weird thing is, you might not know you found it at first. But when someone asks you about the patient, it's invariably The Question and its answer that you recall alongside their health issue. It might be a simple, "What kind of work do (did) you do?" or "What's your son doing now?" or even "Nice shirt. Where did you get that?" Nothing complicated, mind you. You hear about the job, the kids, the passions: people being people, not just an algorithm.

And the best part?

There's always (and I mean always) something new to learn.

This post by Westby Fisher, MD, appeared at Get Better Health, a network of popular health bloggers brought together by Val Jones, MD. Better Health's mission is to support and promote health care professional bloggers, provide insightful and trustworthy health commentary, and help to inform health policy makers about the provider point of view on health care reform, science, research and patient care.