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I was delighted to learn recently that medical students at Cardiff University have launched a campaign called ‘Ask One Question!’ They are encouraging their fellow students to ask a single question of every patient they see: “If I could do one thing to improve your stay here today, what would it be?”1 As well as showing basic good manners towards patients, the question will help students to develop a patient-centred approach to their work. It will also make students feel useful on the wards, rather than in the way. The organisers are pooling the answers to include in a guide to the top 10 things that all medical students can do to help patients. Apparently the commonest answer to the question is a request for a glass of water, although some answers will doubtless turn out to be of far greater consequence, such as: “I want the doctors to tell me whether I've got cancer”. My guess is that some will show up important medical issues, like the fact that a patient is waiting for a crucial test, or there has been an error in their medication.
I have a longstanding interest in the use of questions in medicine, and the effect they have on the quality of medical care. I have always been struck by how we learn so many factual questions in our training—the ‘clerking’ ones that help you make a diagnosis—and how few of the questions we are taught help us perform all the other tasks that the consultation needs to serve. These tasks include exploring what …
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