From Our Readers
June 27, 2013 6:00 am

Usually when I get a flashback to college I am doing something that would spark obvious nostalgia, like driving in my car and the song ‘Alcohol’ by Brad Paisley comes on. I can’t help but start to laugh when he says “I bet you a drink or two that I can make you…put that lamp shade on your head”. I’m also probably one of the few people who will admit that they actually were upset when Hef and the original “Girls Next Door” girls broke up because I knew I’d have nothing quite as hilariously amazing to watch on my lazy Sunday, Greek-food take-out and never get out of pajama days with my roommates/friends (even my best straight guy friend). These are the memories that college was made of, and these are the ones I want to never forget. These kinds of mind associations also make logical sense, which is why it came as quite a bit of a shock to me that I would have one of these “flashbacks”, let alone to something sorority related, in a more serious, less typically college-memory inspiring situation: A medical school patient interview practice session.

It all started when I was sitting in a room with a hired standardized “actor patient” learning how to help people with behavioral change (talking to someone about their motivation to quit smoking, for example). I had already practiced and I was listening to the patient repeatedly respond to the other student’s questions with “No” or “Yes”. I was getting really annoyed for the other student because I could tell it was frustrating and it felt like the patient was a teacher saying “I don’t know can you?” when he used the word “can” instead of “may”. I personally HATED when teachers did this as a kid (seriously, I just wanted to go to the bathroom) and it was particularly bugging me watching this interaction. It also reminded me of one of the first physical exams I ever performed. It was on an older gentleman and being nervous and (I thought) polite, every step of the way I told him what I was doing and I asked to examine him. I’d say: “Can I listen to your lungs”…and he would say… “I don’t know CAN you?”. To which I would have to frustratingly reply: “MAY I PLEASE listen to your lungs now?”, while he smirked. The unfortunate outcome of this, for all of my future patients, is that now I don’t even ask, I simply say “I am going to listen to your lungs now”.  But, for my classmate, like it was for me with this patient, the truth is that it is really hard to know what you are saying and how you are saying it at the moment. I could have gone back and forth all day “accidentally” saying can instead of may, even though I desperately tried to make myself stop. Sometimes you can only really pick up on what you are doing when someone points it out to you, which I guess is a perk of this being a learning experience and part of school after all.

Anyway, since I had been observing and had figured out why she was giving only yes/no answers, I played the role of pointer-outer. I told him how great he had done and then said something along the lines of: “Open-ended questions are annoying to make, but try just taking the question words off. You know, instead of asking: ‘Do you have a cough?  Say…Tell me about your cough’.” As these words came out of my mouth, it was like being hit with a sorority recruitment déjà vu semi-truck. I was suddenly a junior in college again, preparing for rush for my sorority.

It was January and like I had been the year before, I was sitting on the floor of our sorority house as the girls in charge of rush were leading a session on “open-ended vs. closed ended questions”. They asked for examples of both kinds of questions and wrote them on the big pad of paper at the front of the room. They then told us to practice “open-ended” questions (the best kind) in conversation with our neighbor. During this time, a few upperclassmen would stand up and say how we should actually try, and not blow off, this practice session because it had helped them in their business job on campus recruiting.  Like I had done the year before when they had said this same thing, I rolled my eyes, and went back to talking over them and being pissed off that I was there. I definitely was not one of those girls who joined a sorority because I in any way enjoyed rush, rushing, or the rush process. Going through it to get into a sorority in the first place was hard enough (think Survivor meets the Weakest Link meets the Bachelor meets Mean Girls… “Oh my god, I love your bracelet…. Where’d you get it?”). Let alone having to do it every year after that. But, there I was (because I had to or I’d be fined) and years later…s**t. They were right.  Open-ended questions didn’t just help in business recruiting they helped in medicine, too.

Like one of those movie ah-ha moments where everything comes together, or like the ending of Clueless where she goes “I love JOSH”, images of my conversations with other patients flooded into my head and I suddenly realized that talking to all patients is really just a long conversation of extended, open-ended questions. Lots of listening. Lots of nodding. And, really not a lot of talking. Its like you want to get as much out of the person as you can in a short time (like rush) and you don’t want to ask all the questions (avoiding yes/no answers), so you just lead the patient in the right direction. “Why do you feel like quitting is difficult?” “What brings you in to today?” “Tell me more about your chest pain.” Clearly, one of the main skills of this behavioral change session was using open-ended questions, and when we didn’t use them the awkward delay between the “no” and our next question glaringly pointed out our mistake. Everything had truly come full circle.  This Clueless movie movement showed me that even though it was not natural for everyone, I could practically speak in all open-ended questions if someone wanted me to….Thanks to….wait for it (insert weird fountain light change and horn sounds here): “Oh.My.GOSH…. My Sorority.”

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying I am an expert at talking to patients simply because I know how to take the question words off and let someone talk for a while. And, I definitely couldn’t have gone straight from rush to practicing medicine. But, I am going to admit that I apparently have a skill that other people don’t have because I had three extra years of practice (without even knowing I was practicing for being a doctor).

In the end, while I am more likely to look back and laugh about the time I inflated a baby pool in a dorm room or my friend did a strip tease as a gorilla for big little week, I will now wholeheartedly admit that I am a better question asker and even potentially a better future doctor, because of the Alpha Phi-Eta Iota Chapter at the University of Pennsylvania (shout-out) and those damned mandatory recruitment practice sessions.

Now, tell me, how does that make you feel?

Read more from Jessica Gold here.

Featured image via.

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