Sunday, 20 November 2011

How not to answer a question

Achievement unlocked: Completed first surgical placement
Status: Acceptable

Some consultants like you to stay quiet if you don't know the answer, some like you to take a guess because "I don't know is never right". But all of them like you to think systematically, to have a pre-programmed structure to your answer. There are some classic questions a surgical consultant will fire off and expect a quick, concise answer in reply - answer that can only be achieved by applying logical, systematic thought.

When we're taught this way of thinking it is generally with a smile on the face of the lecturer and a remark about how you can use the answer to avoid actually having any specialist knowledge in the topic or in actuality, having an answer to the question. If that sounds a little convoluted, allow me to demonstrate:

"What are the complications of this surgical procedure?"
"Complications of surgery can be divided into immediate, early and late, and further sub-divided into specific to a given operation or general to all surgeries. Immediate complications arise during the procedure or in recovery, early within 48-72 hours, late within weeks of the procedure..."

Do you see how that answer isn't an answer at all? And how it is completely right at the same time?

At first I thought it was a technique to bore the consultant and get them wave you into silence, firing off the next (and generally harder question) at the student next to you. But then when I thought about it a bit more, I realised this is such a useful way to manage your knowledge. Rather than having a randomly assorted list of things, you can partition them off, divide them up to help guide your care and treatment modalities with a clear understanding of the most likely cause and the relative seriousness of the complaint.

Whilst there having been important take-aways from this placement, such as the fact I don't think I'm going to be a surgeon, or how busy and yet elegant the anatomy of the hand is, the notion of systematic thinking and how to apply these kind of techniques to make me a better doctor is my top learning point form the past six weeks.

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