Mastering the Art of Concise Inquiry in Clinical Practice

In the world of healthcare, particularly in physiotherapy, the initial consultation plays a pivotal role in understanding a patient’s condition. However, this process often subjects patients to a barrage of questions, leading to what is known as ‘question fatigue’. 

Renowned author Edgar H. Schein, in his book “Humble Inquiry”, brings to light a profound aspect of communication that is especially pertinent for clinicians: the skill of asking the right questions, concisely and purposefully. 

The Power of Precise Questions

For a physiotherapist, every question posed to a patient should serve a clear purpose. It’s not merely about gathering information; it’s about extracting the most relevant data with the least verbal exertion. This focused approach respects the patient’s time and mental space, making them feel more at ease and understood. As Schein eloquently puts it, this is not just a method, but an art form – a learnable skill that enhances the clinician-patient relationship.

Beyond Information Gathering

Asking questions effectively goes beyond the mere collection of data. It’s about building trust and rapport. When a clinician asks targeted, relevant questions, it demonstrates to the patient a deep level of engagement and a genuine desire to understand their unique situation. This approach fosters a more open and honest dialogue, crucial for effective treatment planning.

The Art of Humble Inquiry

Schein’s concept of ‘Humble Inquiry’ is particularly relevant here. It suggests an approach of curiosity and respect towards the patient’s narrative. By carefully selecting questions that drill down to the core of the patient’s issues, clinicians can avoid unnecessary or redundant queries. This not only streamlines the consultation process but also minimises the cognitive load on the patient, making the interaction more productive and less tiring.

Learning and Practicing the Skill

Developing the skill of concise questioning is a journey. It requires ongoing practice, reflection, and a willingness to learn from each patient interaction. Clinicians should continuously evaluate the effectiveness of their questions and seek feedback from colleagues and patients alike. The workshops that I run both online and in person, training sessions, and reading materials, such as Schein’s work, can provide valuable insights and techniques to refine this skill.

Service to the Patient

Ultimately, mastering the art of asking the right questions in the least number of words is a service to the patient. This is something the late Geoff Maitland taught over the course of 12 months. I will never forget his question to me- “How can you ask a better question?”

The art of asking the right questions demonstrates a clinician’s commitment to efficient and empathetic care. By reducing question fatigue, we enhance patient comfort and engagement, leading to more accurate diagnoses and effective treatment plans.

In conclusion, the skill of asking concise, purposeful questions is not just a communication strategy; it’s an essential component of quality patient care in physiotherapy. 

By adopting Schein’s principles of ‘Humble Inquiry’, clinicians can transform their initial consultations into a more patient-centric, efficient, and effective process. This skill, while learnable and improvable, is indeed an art form that serves the dual purpose of benefiting the patient and enhancing the clinician’s practice.

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