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8 Things Doctors Can Learn From Teachers

I write from experience. Twelve years as an elementary school teacher. Ten years (and counting) as a chronic patient. (I live with an autoimmune disease, undifferentiated connective tissue disease.) Only now, however, have I come to realize the similarities that exist between many parent/teacher conferences and many doctors’ appointments.

Sometimes, you enter into both situations with a general idea of the status of things. You’ve reviewed your child’s progress reports, and you receive regular communication from the classroom teacher. The conference merely formalizes what you already know. Likewise, you go in for your yearly physical, feeling fine (thank goodness) and knowing your doctor will ask you the usual questions about your overall health and any prescription and over-the-counter medications.

Other times, you’re aware a situation needs to be addressed. Whether as a parent or a patient, you enter that meeting looking for guidance, advice and a path forward. That’s where the similarities end, and the experiences radically diverge. This is the point where I think doctors could learn from the way teachers conduct their conferences.

Here are eight suggestions and recommendations for effective, positive doctors’ appointments from a former teacher/current patient’s perspective.

1. Stick to your schedule. Teachers don’t keep a parent waiting for 30 minutes. No parent would tolerate it. If a teacher falls slightly behind schedule (three to five minutes), teachers readily apologize for their tardiness. Doctors, however, must believe their patient has nowhere else to be and nothing else to do but wait. When the doctor appears, an apology is noticeably absent.

2. Make eye contact. Teachers have a discussion with parents and show parents their child’s artwork, test scores and writing samples. But, first and foremost, teachers are having a conversation about a child both parties care a great deal about. Teachers look at parents; doctors, however, tend to listen while looking at a screen. Reading past lab results. Typing in an answer you gave two minutes ago. But always giving the impression they’re not fully present, not really hearing you and not really seeing you.

3. Do your homework. Before a conference, a teacher refreshes her memory. She looks over, again, a student’s latest spelling test, reading fluency score and math test. Furthermore, teachers familiarize themselves with any relevant information. A teacher would never ask a parent how many years their child has attended the school. A teacher would know if the child enrolled last year or has attended the same school since kindergarten. Doctors, on the other hand, ask questions about tests and past appointments the doctor should already know about, because the information is readily available in a patient’s medical records.

4. Watch your language. A teacher should never call a child annoying. Or weird. More teachers use more diplomatic words and phrases. Some doctors, on the other hand, skip the polite words and phrases. In my experience, they don’t even use words like “weird” or “strange” to refer to the symptom or the lab result, but instead, put it on the patient. In fact, doctors have told me “you’re weird” multiple times.

5. Ask about the whole picture. Teachers want to know as much as possible about their students. Teachers ask about a student’s health issues and changes at home (birth of a new sibling, divorce). Students are more than a set of test results and grades. Students are children first, whose school performance is absolutely impacted by sleep, eating habits and long commutes to and from school. Likewise, doctors need to ask more probing questions. Sleep, mood, hobbies, job — they all influence and impact physical health.

6. Use “regular” language.  Teachers don’t usually quote academic language within the context of a conference. Especially when certain terms or acronyms have no context for the parent. So rather than mention the school’s “Title I” status, teachers explain what that means (free bus for the upcoming field trip). Likewise, doctors need to skip some of the medical terminology. Put it all into words that are easily understood, that take the mystery out of the experience, and that are relevant to the patient.

7. Follow-up when promised. Teachers make plans and promises and act on them. In a timely manner. Sending home the extra worksheet, or the contact information for a recommended tutor. Responding to a voicemail and/or email within one school day. Doctors tend to use a different timetable when it comes to following up with patients, often needing their patients to give them a reminder in the form of a follow-up email, phone call or both.

8. Stress partnership. School isn’t nearly as effective without the support and buy-in of a student’s family. Teachers need the cooperation and participation of a student’s family. Likewise, doctors don’t have all the answers. And they shouldn’t pretend they do. A patient is the expert on their body. A patient’s concerns and observations need to be listened to and respected by all doctors the patient interacts with.

Getty image via Alina Kvaratskhelia