Getting it right

The other day, my very experienced and highly competent yoga instructor referred to “happy baby” pose as “child’s pose.” While they both sound juvenile, those poses could not be more different. Later that day, I told a patient that she should walk for 30 minutes a week, when I meant to tell her to walk for 30 minutes a day. Fortunately, both of those very small errors were obvious enough that the listener easily caught and corrected them. But how many times do we misspeak and thus convey the wrong information? Our patients do the same. At other times we can mis-hear or misunderstand what is being told to us. To guard against this, it’s wise to paraphrase – both what we just said, and what we think we heard from our patients.

After our patients have told us the history of their concern, we can stop and say, “just to make sure that I understand you…” and then repeat what we think they said. This allows them to correct any inaccuracies and lets them know we were listening.

Similarly, after a section of our explanation or recommendations, we can reiterate the main points. If we’ve goofed and misspoken, our patient can point out the inconsistency and we can clear it up. And if we said it right the first time, paraphrasing serves to underscore its importance and help our patient remember.

Happy baby pose and child’s pose both provide a great stretch, so it might not matter if the yoga instructor mixes them up. But we all know that in caring for patients, the accuracy of our communication can be a matter of life or death. The simple skill of paraphrasing may help you get it right when it really counts.

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About Helane Fronek

Over the past 28 years I have had a fascinating and fulfilling career in medicine, initially practicing as a general internist and then as a procedural specialist, caring for patients with vein disorders. As Assistant Clinical Professor of Medicine at UC- San Diego School of Medicine, I’m thrilled to be teaching medical students crucial communication skills along with many other aspects involved in the practice of medicine.
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