Last week I saw a patient who was concerned that his post-treatment course wasn’t what he had anticipated. The pain he had originally was gone, but now he had a new pain that was interfering with his sleep. As I attempted to explain what had happened, that he had experienced an unintended reaction, his face became drawn and he looked shocked. Thinking that he simply needed reassurance, I described why the reaction was not significant and that he should have no persistent problems because of it. I saw him become fidgety and distracted and, quickly after my explanation, he left abruptly. Unfortunately, he continued to have difficulties and returned to the office several days later.
He had graciously given me a chance at better communication.
What I had failed to do was to truly define his concerns, so while I attempted to alleviate his worry, it didn’t really sink in. What would have been more effective would have been to say that he looked concerned and then to simply ask, “what are you most concerned about, given this new information about your treatment?” Another way of beginning this conversation was to suggest what I thought might be worrying him. In fact, when he heard me identify his concern, his voice became animated and he exclaimed, “right!” I explained again, just as I had days earlier, that the unexpected reaction would not hurt him in any way. But this time, he was able to hear it.
When our patients are worried, they need to know that we understand their fears. Once we name the fear, our explanations become more trustworthy and powerful. What a simple technique – that I hope I remember next time!