Medicated Rhetorics

The topic of backpacks came up in my office the other day. My officemate, Craig, complemented my book bag, and as I always do whenever someone says something nice, I dramatically wave my hand and explain why it isn’t really all that grand.

And then we got into discussing style versus functionality.

He has a regular backpack that is waterproof, has lots of pockets, and balances its weight equally over both shoulders. Mine is a brown leather (men’s!) bag that I sling over one shoulder and that has me walking like I’m in need of V8 most the time. Mine looks a bit more appealing; his is better for posture. Mine is a more compact and neat; his carries more weight and volume much more comfortably – and keeps dry in our unpredictable Columbus weather.

But, he said, the backpack of old will have to go. It’s embarrassing, he said, to walk into a meeting with it because people won’t take him seriously. I named a professor on campus who’s quite respected and carries one around. But, Craig said, it’s different in the medical field.

Craig is in the Nurse Practitioner program at OSU, where – apparently – the means by which you carry your scholarly materials matters. But it wasn’t long before we moved away from the expectations within the medical field to the expectations toward the field.

The medical field trains its students how to properly interact with patients. First, health practitioners must dress in bland attire. They appear more trustworthy that way, so they say. Don’t believe the movies that tell us we buy into the romantic notions of eccentric, brilliant doctors saving the day. In reality, we don’t want to be surprised by quirky health practitioners. Calm, cool, collected, and so tied to their work that they otherwise appear boring and characterless. Apparently these qualities make us comfortable in the doctor’s office.

He went on to say that sessions with patients need to focus solely on the patient. Attempts at creating common ground by acknowledging a patient’s experience with a personal anecdote actually shuts the patient down. This is very interesting. In rhetorical studies, creating a commonality between two people (identification) is supposed to facilitate communication. Does this mean we don’t want to identify with our health practitioner? Is this situation like finding out in 3rd grade that the teacher has an actual life outside the classroom? And makes the person human? And therefore susceptible to human tendencies, like trimming one’s fingernails, eating junk food, or committing errors? Hmm.

Last, Craig brought up the conversation ratio between patient and practitioner. Practitioners are told to give careful attention to the time they spend talking and not listening. Studies have shown that when asked to gauge how much time went to speaking or listening, practitioners had impressions that were quite far from the truth. They spend a lot more time talking than they expect. (A lot of us, actually, could probably learn something from this study.)

At this point in the conversation, I began taking notes on what Craig was saying (which kind of freaked him out, but that topic is for another day). Now he began giving me some of his personal insights on the personas of health practitioners. He said that in the one or two appointments with one patient is often not enough time for him to figure out which character to take on. Sometimes he has to be disciplinarian, coach, parent, friend, or any combination thereof. His duty comes down to patient education: What sort of persona will be most effective for making patients believe they need to take their medication until they have finished their prescriptions?

Fascinating. Utterly fascinating. From the rhetoric of handbags to medical literacy – all in one office. Imagine if we could fit more people in here. . . .

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