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Chatty Doctors – Do They Waste YOUR Time?

Interesting article in the New York Times about doctors talking about themselves too much.  Apparently, some doctors spend precious patient interview time talking about unrelated personal information (recent vacation experiences, family members, etc.).  In fact, a recent study in the Archives of Internal Medicine suggests that physicians annoy patients with these misguided attempts at building rapport.

We physicians are trained in medical school to be more humanistic and compassionate towards our patients – but we are not given specific direction regarding how to achieve those goals.  And let’s face it, we’re kind of geeky in the first place, some of us lack social skills, and we’re under a lot of stress most of the time.  The result?  Awkward conversations about the most innocuous things we can think of to break the ice – vacations, daily routines, the weather… and perhaps a lot of wasted time.

The research study has its limitations, though.  First of all, it only studied physicians in Rochester, New York.  Now, my husband is from Rochester – so I dare not say anything unkind… but culturally speaking, the Rochester crew is a little more chatty and casual in their approach to conversations than folks in Manhattan or Boston for example.  So there may be a cultural bias at play here in the research.

Second, it’s unclear how much the personal commentary bothers real patients.  The conversations were judged by researchers listening to recordings of fake patients who had no previous relationship with the doctor.  It’s entirely possible that regular patients might enjoy the personal aspects of the dialogue and actually look forward to hearing how the doctor and his or her family is doing because they have a caring, friendly relationship.

And finally, the study doesn’t address the issue of how to improve the doctor-patient relationship if self-disclosure is so unsuccessful.  The poor docs in Rochester are going to be left with a self-conscious uneasiness about idle chatter – and will again not know exactly how to demonstrate humanism as recommended in their medical school training.

But, I must say – that if my doctor spent our entire session talking about herself, I sure would be annoyed, and rightly so.  Still, I think I’d like her more if she told me something personal about her own struggles.  There’s a balance here – and the complicated interplay of human relationships is hard to measure with standardized patients, audio tapes, and a small geographical location.  If your doctor is too chatty, just redirect him/her.  You know we do that to YOU all the time.  This post originally appeared on Dr. Val’s blog at

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