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Speaking to Your Doctor

The key to health may be knowing when to listen, when to talk.

WebMD Feature

May 15, 2000 -- In his engaging and acclaimed new book, Second Opinions: Stories of Intuition and Choice in the Changing World of Medicine, Jerome Groopman, MD, tells seven life-and-death stories that illustrate the dangers of not listening or not speaking up. Groopman is the Recanati Professor at Harvard Medical School, a staff writer for The New Yorker, chief of experimental medicine at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, and, as his writing reveals, a vulnerable human being.

He begins his book with the cautionary tale of his own pigheadedness as a young patient. He then recalls his hesitance to speak up as the parent of a sick infant -- a reticence that almost led to his son's death from an intestinal obstruction. And in the course of a tale about saving a patient's life, he confesses his own medical mistake years earlier that resulted in a patient's death. In his only Internet interview, Groopman responded to questions from WebMD openly and with a research scientist's eye for detail.

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WebMD: While each of the seven stories you tell in your book stands on its own, was there one main point you were trying to communicate?

Groopman: Yes. The point is really in the story about our son who almost died because of two sequential medical misjudgments. That was a transforming experience for both my wife and me. As the years went by, I thought about it more and felt it was very important to recount that story (and the others in the book) to give both patients and doctors the courage to come closer in terms of communication.

WebMD: The stories seem to be about there being a time to talk and a time to listen. You said your experience as a patient with a ruptured disc in search of a quick fix -- because you were determined to run in the Boston Marathon -- taught you more about listening than you learned in medical school. Where did you go wrong?

Groopman: I told that story about myself because I was a very bad patient. I was young and cocky and really determined to "doctor shop" until I found an orthopedic surgeon who told me, glibly, exactly what I wanted to hear. I've regretted that decision for the last 21 years. It changed my life, and not for the better, in terms of functioning. I would have benefited from listening more closely to the other physicians who offered more conservative approaches and also from having someone with me [in the exam room], because when you're a patient, you're confused and frightened. I was in pain and I made a mistake. (See How to Ask for a Second Opinion)

WebMD: It's pretty hard when you're young and healthy to imagine you can be permanently changed by not listening. Is there a way to teach people this?

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