Medical Practice

The Art of Explaining: Starting With the Big Idea

By HANS DUVEFELT

We live in a time of thirty second sound bytes, 280 character tweets and general information overload. Our society seems to have ADHD. There is fierce competition for people’s attention.

As doctors, we have so many messages we want to get across to our patients. How many seconds do we have before we lose their attention in our severely time curtailed and content regulated office visits?

I have found that it generally works better to make a stark, radical statement as an attention grabber and then qualifying it than to carefully describe a context from beginning to end.

Once a person shows interest or responds with a followup statement or question, you have a better chance for a meaningful discussion. Just starting to explain something without knowing if the person wants to hear what you have to say could just be a waste of time.

Here are some of my typical conversation starters – or stoppers, if you will:

“The purpose of a physical is to talk about stuff that could kill you, more than about symptoms that annoy.”

“Nothing makes a cold go away faster.”

“Urology is about plumbing, nephrology is about chemistry.”

“Most headaches are migraines.”

“Sinus headaches don’t exist in Europe.”

“I don’t care what your blood pressure is today if you’re scared or in pain.”

“A healthy lifestyle is at least as effective as taking Lipitor.”

“We now know that eating fat makes you lose weight.”

“Cholesterol only causes damage if there is also inflammation.”

“Fat free means high in sugar.”

“I don’t believe in vitamins.”

“Osteoporosis happens to every woman around 80, so is it really a disease?”

“You have to treat 35 men for prostate cancer to save one life.”

“You know how many cases of testicular cancer I’ve come across in 40 years? Three!”

“It takes 45 minutes of walking to burn 100 calories, but only 10 seconds to drink them.”

My brief experience as a substitute teacher for junior high school students as well as my many years as a scout leader taught me that you can’t assume you have people’s attention just because you’re standing in front of them. They will give it to you if they believe you have something interesting to say. You often have less than thirty seconds to prove that you do.

Is our medical knowledge alive enough in our minds that we can share it in a quick, easy and captivating way with our distracted patients?

Hans Duvefelt is a Swedish-born rural Family Physician in Maine. This post originally appeared on his blog, A Country Doctor Writes, here.

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