She makes the mistake of talking to patients.”

Overheard from a fellow discussing the consult attending’s rounding habits

Is there such a thing as spending too much time with a patient? The question seems preposterous, when recent time motion studies showed that physicians in general, and residents in particular, clock embarrassingly few face-to-face minutes. The quote above was said with a wink and a nudge, but there are situations when it can be true, particularly if you talk to a patient—or get talked to—instead of having a conversation.

Two groups are at highest risk of talking too much—trainees and consultants. Many an internist remembers having to pick up the pieces after a consulting physician flew by the bedside to throw an unasked for opinion bomb. Think hematologists talking about insulin regimens, cardiologists about causes and treatment of back pain, or orthopedic surgeons about code status. “But one doctor said…” and a perplexed look is the usual outcome, more so if the consultant debated him or herself out loud.

Fellows are even more efficient sowers of confusion. Unlike some of their superiors, they still remember other fields well enough to a) have a valid opinion, and b) keep it to themselves. Where they are at highest risk for foot-in-mouth is the area of their future expertise—picking up just enough from the attendings to sound knowledgeable, yet not knowing enough to tell the patient what they don’t know. Even at later stages of training, a fellow’s best plan shared with the patient may tumble down when the attending gives a diametrically opposed recommendation. The common scenario is one in which there is no evidence, and clinical judgment rules. You can either not share your own view, or punctuate every conversation with “But we’ll see what my attending says.” More time wasted, and for nothing.

Patients themselves can be talkative, sometimes to their detriment. The reasons are many, and understandable: they have much to say about themselves—relevant to why they are in the hospital and not so much, they might not have anyone at home listening, they may have some level of delirium, dementia, or other cognitive disorder. Being able to identify such a person, and then knowing how to direct the conversation, is an unknown skill for most trainees and goes against today’s dogma of giving patients time to talk. No harm done to the chatty ones, but there are only so many hours in the day, and some of them should be spent thinking.

To be clear, we don’t have an epidemic of young doctors staying in the hospital until 2am while demented World War II veterans regail them with half-made up stories from Normandy. If only. But more isn’t always better, and physicians need to know when to speak up (to get their patient back on the topic), and when to stay quiet (not to overwhelm them with half-baked ideas).