Do you interrupt what clients are saying when you meet with them?

May I ask a personal question?

Nobody has to know the answer. It will remain our little secret.

Do you interrupt your clients?

Do you wait until they completely answer question A before asking question B?

If you’re not sure, you might want to focus on what happens during your next consultation. You could also pay attention to the way your colleagues and team members interact with clients. You might be surprised.

While there is little information, to my knowledge, about what happens during veterinary consultations, physicians have studied that very topic.

Three separate human studies show that physicians interrupt patients within 12, 18 or 23 seconds respectively*. It is quite likely that vets do the same thing.

Dr. Beckman recorded 74 office visits with physicians in the 1980s. In only 23 percent of the visits was the patient able to finish his or her "opening statement of concerns” before being interrupted by the physician. The average time before the interruption was … 18 seconds! In 69 percent of the consultations, the physician interrupted the patient's statement and directed questions toward a specific problem.

Quizzed by the researchers, the physicians believed that they had allowed their patients to speak much longer than they actually did. Their reason for interrupting was, not surprisingly, efficiency. Follow-up research showed that when patients were allowed to talk for as long as they needed, most talked for about 30 seconds. None of them talked for more than 90 seconds.

In another study, Dr. Marvel recorded 264 consultations with physicians in the mid 1990s. Patients’ initial statements of concerns were completed 28% of the time. Patients allowed to complete their statement of concerns used only 6 seconds more on average than those who were redirected before completion of concerns. Six seconds!

Why do we do this? Don’t we know better? Didn’t Mum teach us?

I suspect some of the reasons include:

  • Our chronic lack of time.
  • Our absolute fear that Mr. Smith will ramble on about every ailment his previous Yorkie had.
  •  Our concern that Ms. Jones will make us lose our train of thought.
  • The fact that once we think we know what our patient’s problem is, we dive in with more and more specific questions to confirm our suspicion.

Pressed for time or terrified of digressions, ultimately we miss possibly valuable information by interrupting our clients. In addition, it is conceivable that a patient (or client) who is constantly interrupted will return the "favor” to the doctor and/or will not listen actively. They might concentrate on finding opportunities to say a few words. The consultation might therefore become a competition to be heard.

In Dr. Marvel’s words: "Consequences of incomplete initial descriptions include late-arising concerns and missed opportunities to gather potentially important patient data. Soliciting the patient's agenda takes little time and can improve interview efficiency and yield increased data.”

The benefits are pretty clear: Become a better listener and your client will feel more valued. In turn, your patient will be better treated once you have a more accurate diagnosis. You will appear as respectful, caring and genuinely interested in your client and your patient. And ultimately, you will make your clients happier.

Surely this must be good for business.

Dr. Phil Zeltzman is a mobile, board-certified surgeon in Allentown, Pa. His website is here. He is the co-author of "Walk a Hound, Lose a Pound.”

* Beckman and Frankel (1984); Rhoads et al (1999); Marvel et al (2008)

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