Consult-Liaison Education Informal-curriculum Lessons Medicine Reflection

What is the Question?

I can think of only two times in my life where I received formal instruction on how to ask questions.[1. Without a doubt there have been more than two occasions when someone taught me how to ask questions, but it appears that I either was not paying attention or the lesson was not memorable.]

The first instance was when my parents taught me how to order food in a restaurant. They told me to make a single choice and have my order ready before the wait staff appeared. (“Don’t waste their time.”) They told me to phrase my order in the form of a question:

RIGHT: “Can I have the grilled cheese sandwich, please?”

WRONG: “I want the grilled cheese sandwich.”

My parents also told me to look at the faces of the wait staff and to speak loud enough so they could hear me. They also told me to thank them after they took my order.

(When I became more finicky about sentence construction, I changed the beginning of my orders to “May I…?”. This is mostly due to my 6th grade English teacher who, in his booming voice, would challenge any student who said, “Can I…?” “I don’t know, CAN you? CAN you go to the bathroom? If you CANNOT, perhaps you should see a DOCTOR. MAY you go to the bathroom? Yes, you MAY.”)

In sum, I was supposed to know what I wanted and exercise good manners.

The second time I received formal instruction on how to ask questions was during my third year of medical school.[2. Of course I received formal instruction on how to ask questions throughout my training as a medical student and as a psychiatry resident. However, that was over the course of years and done with varying quality. There were also all the people who taught me how to ask questions and I didn’t understand at the time that they were teaching me how to do that. Communication is difficult. This also explains why my efforts to ask boys out on dates in my youth often resulted in said boys looking at me askance and running away.] Interns and residents often asked medical students (e.g., me) to call consults.

Here’s the thing: When you’re a medical student, you don’t know how to do things like call consults because you don’t entirely know what you’re doing. Mastery comes with practice. Mastery also results from direct feedback, which often comes from exasperated and impatient residents.

When you call a consult you’re asking another service to help you with your patient. For example, if I’m a surgeon and I have a patient who stabbed himself multiple times in the abdomen in an attempt to kill himself, I’ll do the surgery to look around inside and make sure there aren’t injuries to internal organs. However, as a surgeon, I don’t know what to do about my patient’s urges to stab himself, so I’m going to call the psychiatrist to ask her for help.


A surgical intern named Tom[3. Tom had cropped blonde hair. He wore leather pants sometimes. He often went dancing when he wasn’t working. He was smart and, perhaps more importantly, he was kind.] taught me how to call a consult while we were speeding around the hospital one day.

“Before you call a consult, you have to know what you want. What is the question you want answered? The patient is your patient, so you have to provide most of the care. But if you need help, what do you need help with? Don’t just say that the patient has diabetes and high blood pressure. That’s not a question and it’s not clear what you want. Make your question very clear:

‘My patient has diabetes and high blood pressure. He took insulin regularly before he came to the hospital, but now his blood sugars are high. They haven’t been below 300 since he’s been here. Can you help us bring his blood sugars back down?’

See how that’s a clear question? If you ask a clear question, you’ll get answers that will actually help you.

And be nice. Some of the residents you talk to won’t be nice, but that’s just because they’re tired and stressed out. Don’t take it personally.”

In sum, I was supposed to know what I wanted and exercise good manners.

To be clear, it’s not like I had this one conversation with Tom and I thereafter called in stellar consults. I still went on for too long and didn’t share pertinent pieces of information. Residents interrupted me before I had spoken for five seconds and they often made no effort to mask their annoyance.

But! It set me on the path of continually clarifying for myself what I wanted and how to craft better questions. Focusing on “WHAT IS THE QUESTION” has helped me as a psychiatrist (much of the work is often helping other people clarify for themselves what they want), a teacher (if people don’t understand something and get stuck, it’s often because they don’t know what they want to know), and as a human being (when meeting someone new, the question might be as simple as, “How can I make this person feel comfortable so maybe we can become friends?”).

Sometimes asking questions is more complicated than just knowing what you want and exercising good manners (e.g., “Will you marry me?”). Doing both, though, is an excellent place to start.

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