Teaching Crucial Conversations: The Curse of Knowledge & the ASK Problem

4 09 2012

One of the most interesting conversations that I had recently was at the ABIM Foundation Summer Forum Open Space Sessions.  The ABIM Foundation Summer Forum is a summit of thought leaders and experts representing healthcare organizations, policymakers, patients, payers, doctors, and trainees who come together to tackle a major problem in healthcare.  The topic of this year’s forum was in keeping with the launch of the new ABIM Choosing Wisely Campaign and aptly named “Choosing Wisely in an Era of Limited Resources.”

The Forum has a unique format, employing a mix of routine panel discussions, but also “Open Space” conversations where participants actually drive the agenda, deciding what they want to work on.  One of the Open Space topics that I ended up joining was on how to train physicians to have crucial conversations with patients.   After forming this group, there were some immediate questions raised– why only physicians?  What about other members of the care team, including the patient?  Moreover, individuals in our group each had a different definition of what  “crucial conversations” were.  One clear theme was around end-of-life conversations with patients, but that was not the only one.  For example, how to talk to a patient who is asking for a medical test that is not indicated?

As I returned home, I reread some of the literature I have become acquainted with on why we (humans) don’t communicate as well as we should.  Using this framework, it’s worth considering why doctors and patients may not communicate as well as they should.  Drawing from the knowledge communication literature when an ‘expert’ is communicating to a ‘decision maker’, two distinct problems can arise:

  • Curse of Knowledge– The curse of knowledge, otherwise known as the paradox of expertise, represents the difficulty of experts to use commonplace jargon to communicate their ideas to those that are not experts.  Because experts tend to surround themselves with other experts, it can be very difficult for an expert not to use technical jargon when communicating with people who not experts.  This is easily evident in a variety of scenarios – most notably in the first few seconds of the trailer for the movie Contagion when doctors try to tell Matt Damon that his wife, played by index case Gwyneth Paltrow, is dead.  The doctor starts by saying “I am sorry…she failed to respond”.  On cue, Matt Damon responds, “OK can I go talk to her?” clearly missing the meaning of what the doctor has just tried to communicate.  Likewise, one of the patient advocates at our table shared the story of how she came to know she had cancer – “It’s malignant” …so she deduced from “Mal” and all the words that start with “mal” are bad (malice, malpractice…to name a few) so she thought “Mal … bad”.
  • ASK Problem – the ASK Problem stands for the Anomalous State of Knowledge.  This is a problem that arises when the decision maker does not have the knowledge that it takes to ask questions, since asking questions often relies on having intimate knowledge of the subject at hand.   This is particularly salient since we have major campaigns that often are directed at patients to “ask more questions” of their doctor.  However, it may be very hard for a nonexpert to ask a question of an expert if they don’t have a set of common knowledge to go on.  Asking questions is so difficult that our work shows its rare for even physicians to ask other physicians questions, and instead they opt for what is known as “back-channeling” or saying “Uh-huh” to indicate their agreement.  The only problem with this is that back-channeling is that it can be exhibited by demented patients so it is not necessarily a confirmation of comprehension or understanding.  To make matters worse, a recent study shows that patients may not ask questions for fear of being labeled “difficult”.

How can we get around these problems? Well, improving a conversation requires training on all sides. Patients can also be coached to take a more active role in their care. However, healthcare personnel also need to be prepared so that their newly empowered patients are not an unwelcome surprise. Physicians and other healthcare personnel need to be trained in how to speak to patients about difficult decisions in a sensitive way.   One model curriculum we can learn from has been developed by oncology fellowship directors and is called OncoTalk.  One of the key tenants is the principle of NURSE, which describes how to respond to patient emotions during complex decision-making.

  • Naming the emotion “It sounds like you are afraid of X”
  • Understanding the emotion  “I can understand the fear that goes along with X.”
  • Respecting  “You are asking the right questions…”
  • Supporting  “I am here to support you through this decision…”
  • Exploring  “What are you thinking about now?”

Of course, the age-old question is can you teach empathy? Well, according to one recent study, empathy wanes throughout medical school.   So we should, at the very least, try to at least preserve it.

Vineet Arora MD

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