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listening as medicine

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Studies have shown it takes a physician about 18 seconds to interrupt a patient after he begins talking.

conill_200Dr. Alicia Conill is clinical associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. She teaches patients and caregivers how to better cope with chronic illness and disability. Here’s part of her essay in the This I believe series broadcast on NPR yesterday. Click here to read the entire transcript.

It was Sunday. I had one last patient to see. I approached her room in a hurry and stood at the doorway. She was an older woman, sitting at the edge of the bed, struggling to put socks on her swollen feet. I crossed the threshold, spoke quickly to the nurse, scanned her chart noting she was in stable condition. I was almost in the clear.

I leaned on the bedrail looking down at her. She asked if I could help put on her socks. Instead, I launched into a monologue that went something like this: “How are you feeling? Your sugars and blood pressure were high but they’re better today. The nurse mentioned you’re anxious to see your son who’s visiting you today. It’s nice to have family visit from far away. I bet you really look forward to seeing him.”

She stopped me with a stern, authoritative voice. “Sit down, doctor. This is my story, not your story.” I was surprised and embarrassed. I sat down. I helped her with the socks. She began to tell me that her only son lived around the corner from her, but she had not seen him in five years. She believed that the stress of this contributed greatly to her health problems. After hearing her story and putting on her socks, I asked if there was anything else I could do for her. She shook her head no and smiled. All she wanted me to do was to listen.

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