Young Couple Challenges Surgeon at Bedside

young, friendly, confident-looking woman before a backdrop with Eleanor Roosevelt's name

"The Courage to Lead"

A young married couple whom we’ll call “Ted” and “Alice”–real-life friends of ours, with a 1 1/2-year old child–had questions for the attending physician, a surgeon, on Ted’s day of discharge from the hospital yesterday, six days after he underwent emergency abdominal surgery.

The hospital is more than 1,000 miles from home, so there would be little opportunity for normal followup.  Yet the surgeon was not much interested in answering questions.  “You have to trust me,” he said, finally.  “I’ve done this a thousand times.”

“But we haven’t!” said Alice.  “This is our first time.  And I’m the one who will have to care for him.”

Their main questions were the following:

  1. What should we do to manage pain?  Ted’s been on strong pain relievers all week, and now we don’t have a prescription for a pain drug.
  2. What about diet?  Today’s the first day Ted’s eaten any solid food, and we don’t know what he should eat or not eat.
  3. What kinds of complications should we be on the lookout for?  What should we do if they occur?
  4. We want to see our primary care physician back home as soon as possible, but how do we provide that doctor with a record of what went on here in the hospital?

These are great questions, obviously entirely appropriate.  It’s remarkable that the hospital didn’t furnish written discharge instructions that anticipated these questions.  It’s startling that the attending physician found them, well, not worth his time.

And here’s the great part.  Despite her limited experience with the health care system and a personality more given to agreement than confrontation, Alice didn’t let herself be overwhelmed by the surgeon’s air of superiority.  (He apparently did a great job with the diagnosis and surgery, by the way.)

So take heart: You can communicate effectively with physicians even if you’re not used to dealing with doctors, are uncomfortable challenging authority, and aren’t as old as the hills–and just as unmovable.

Aware that preparation is key, Alice had written down her questions before meeting with the doctor.  Then she and Ted discussed and refined them.  They knew what they wanted to learn and why.

Further, Alice understood that performing her role as an advocate was not about her or about a difference in personalities.  It was about obtaining necessary information.

If you have your own story–with a good, bad, or mixed ending–let’s hear from you.  And if you would like more tips, check out our book, available on this blogsite.

Alice used communication skills to achieve patient-centered care in one hospital room, far from home, on a blustery winter’s day.  How lucky for Ted–and their peppy toddler son!

Take care.

Photo credit: U.S. Mission GenevaAttribution.

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