September 2002

From BMJ-British Medical Journal

Most patients take less than two minutes to tell their story

Spontaneous talking time at start of consultation in outpatient clinic: cohort study BMJ Volume 325, pp 682-3

Doctors should let patients talk without interruption at the start of a consultation, a study in this week's BMJ suggests.

Research in America has shown that doctors take the lead in a consultation on average after 22 seconds, probably because they believe it would be time-consuming to allow patients to talk uninterrupted. Doctors in Switzerland set out to test this assumption.

Patients at an outpatient clinic in Basle were asked to talk spontaneously about their complaints and indicate when they had finished. Their doctors were instructed to time them on a hidden stopwatch and not to interrupt until the patient said "What do you think, doctor?"

The average spontaneous talking time was 92 seconds and 78% of patients had finished within two minutes. Sex and social status did not influence the results, but older patients tended to talk for longer.

In all cases the doctors believed that their patients were providing important information and did not feel the need to interrupt them.

The authors conclude that doctors do not risk drowning in their patients' complaints if they let them talk spontaneously. Even in a busy practice doctors should be able to listen for two minutes, which will be sufficient for most patients.

Furthermore, the data was gathered in a referral centre characterised by patients with complex problems. Patients in other groups may need even less time to tell their story.











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