Letters from Maine

Did I really say that?


Unless you decide to start a second career as an expert witness, giving a deposition is a challenge you should avoid at all costs. I have given a few depositions myself, as both a defendant and a witness, and I have reviewed a dozen or more as a consultant for a local law firm. It is an unnatural and artificial format for transferring information. You will survive the depositions rigid and arbitrary rules only by listening to and following your lawyer’s coaching both before and during the deposition. Hopefully you never will be deposed. However, it may be instructive to consider the deposition’s unsettling format as a way to improve your communication skills with patients, parents, and nonphysicians.

Gavel and stethoscope belchonock/Thinkstock

First, in a deposition every word you utter is recorded. There are no second chances to edit or clarify what you have said. Your words must be carefully chosen. Several times each year I encounter the parent of a former patient in the grocery store who quotes to me some advice they claim I gave them 2 or 3 decades ago. Although I can imagine that I might have voiced the message they are remembering, sometimes I have to cringe at the bluntness and the crude choice of words they are attributing to me. Obviously, I got away with my fast and loose handling of the English language most of the time and am flattered that it was memorable. But I wonder how often I offended a family with my shoot-from-the-hip advice.

In a similar vein, I found that one of the benefits of having medical students shadow me around the office was that their presence forced me to listen to myself. Did I really say that? How sloppy had I gotten in my explanations to parents and patients? Having another pair of ears in the office can be like having a court stenographer at your deposition.

The situation can be particularly insidious when a parent asks what you take to be a rhetorical question or more likely makes a statement that is incorrect, but you fail to correct it because it is off topic and you are in a hurry to get to the next exam room. If in a deposition the plaintiff’s lawyer prefaces a question with “We all know that sugar makes children hyper,” before you leap over his preface and give your answer you should respond that you are unaware of any scientific evidence that supports his assertion. But if a parent offhandedly mentions that his child was on a “sugar high” you might not take the time to disagree because the parent’s observation had no significance to the history he was relating. However, the parent could interpret from your silence that you believe sugar causes hyperactivity.

Dr. William G. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years.

Dr. William G. Wilkoff

Of course the volume of old wives tales, urban legends, and chat room myths that float by you in the office every day makes it impractical to counter every bit of misinformation we hear. But the rules of deposition should remind us that our failure to disagree might sometimes be interpreted as an agreement.

One of the more difficult concepts challenging the deposed physician is avoiding the too much information trap. Your answers in a deposition should be simple and to the point. Physicians are trained to teach. How often are we clouding the answers the patients want by trying to impress them with our breadth of knowledge and command of scientific language?

Although you may have a scribe helping you craft your electronic medical records, hopefully he or she won’t be a court stenographer. And even more fortunately, most patients and parents aren’t listening to every word you say. But from time to time, it helps to pretend you are being deposed. Or at least take a moment to listen to what you have been saying.

Dr. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including “How to Say No to Your Toddler.” Email him at pdnews@mdedge.com.

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