Listening Is Powerful Medicine

Alicia M. Conill, M.D. - Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania
As heard on NPR’s Weekend Edition, February 1, 2009
Alicia M. Conill, M.D.

It took a scolding from an elderly patient to get Dr. Alicia Conill to stop and listen to her instead of just reviewing her chart. Conill came to see the value of listening in the treatment process, especially when she became a patient herself.

Age Group: 30 - 50
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I believe listening is powerful medicine.

Studies have shown it takes a physician about eighteen seconds to interrupt a patient after he or she begins talking.

It was Sunday. I had one last patient to see. I approached her room in a hurry and stood at the doorway. She was an older woman, sitting at the edge of the bed, struggling to put socks on her swollen feet. I crossed the threshold, spoke quickly to the nurse, and scanned her chart, noting that she was in stable condition. I was almost in the clear.

I leaned on the bed rail and looked down at her. She asked if I could help put on her socks. Instead, I launched into a monologue that went something like this: “How are you feeling? Your sugars and blood pressure were high but they’re better today. The nurse mentioned you’re anxious to see your son who’s visiting you today. It’s nice to have family visit from far away. I bet you really look forward to seeing him.”

She stopped me with a stern, authoritative voice. “Sit down, doctor. This is my story, not your story.”

I was surprised and embarrassed. I sat down. I helped her with the socks. She began to tell me that her only son lived around the corner from her, but she had not seen him in five years. She believed that the stress of this contributed greatly to her health problems. After hearing her story and putting on her socks, I asked if there was anything else I could do for her. She shook her head no and smiled. All she wanted me to do was to listen.

Each story is different. Some are detailed; others are vague. Some have a beginning, middle, and end. Others wander without a clear conclusion. Some are true, others not. Yet all of those things do not really matter. What matters to the storyteller is that the story is heard—without interruption, assumption, or judgment.

Listening to someone’s story costs less than expensive diagnostic testing but is key to healing and diagnosis.

I have often thought of what that woman taught me and reminded myself of the importance of stopping, sitting down, and truly listening. And, not long after, in an unexpected twist, I became the patient, with a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis at age thirty-one. Now, twenty years later, I sit all the time—in a wheelchair.

For as long as I could, I continued to see patients from my chair but had to resign when my hands were affected. I still teach medical students and other health care professionals, but now from the perspective of both physician and patient.

I tell them I believe in the power of listening. I tell them I know firsthand that immeasurable healing takes place within me when someone stops, sits down, and listens to my story.

Alicia Conill, M.D., is a clinical associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. A native of Cuba, Dr. Conill also directs the nonprofit Conill Institute, which provides education to increase empathy, knowledge, and awareness about people living with chronic illness and physical disability.

Independently produced for NPR by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman with John Gregory and Viki Merrick.