What Is the Use of the Question, “Is He Better?”

7 minutes

What Is the Use of the Question, “Is He Better?”

There is no more silly or universal question scarcely asked than this, “Is he better?” Ask it of the medical attendant, if you please. But of whom else, if you wish for a real answer to your question, would you ask it? Certainly not of the casual visitor; certainly not of the nurse, while the nurse’s observation is so little exercised as it is now. What you want are facts, not opinions—for who can have any opinion of any value as to whether the patient is better or worse, excepting the constant medical attendant, or the really observing nurse?

The most important practical lesson that can be given to nurses is to teach them what to observe—how to observe—what symptoms indicate improvement—what the reverse—which are of importance—which are of none—which are the evidence of neglect—and of what kind of neglect.

All this is what ought to make part, and an essential part, of the training of every nurse. At present how few there are, either professional or unprofessional, who really know at all whether any sick person they may be with is better or worse.

The vagueness and looseness of the information one receives in answer to that much abused question, “Is he better?” would be ludicrous, if it were not painful. The only sensible answer (in the present state of knowledge about sickness) would be “How can I know? I cannot tell how he was when I was not with him.”

I can record but a very few specimens of the answers* which I have heard made by friends and nurses, and accepted by physicians and surgeons at the very bed-side of the patient, who could have contradicted every word, but did not—sometimes from amiability, often from shyness, oftenest from languor!

“How often have the bowels acted, nurse?” “Once, sir.” This generally means that the utensil has been emptied once, it having been used perhaps seven or eight times.

“Do you think the patient is much weaker than he was six weeks ago?” “Oh no, sir; you know it is very long since he has been up and dressed, and he can get across the room now.” This means that the nurse has not observed that whereas six weeks ago he sat up and occupied himself in bed, he now lies still doing nothing; that, although he can “get across the room,” he cannot stand for five seconds.

Another patient who is eating well, recovering steadily, although slowly, from a fever, but cannot walk or stand, is represented to the doctor as making no progress at all.

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Leading Questions Useless or Misleading

Questions, too, as asked now (but too generally) of or about patients, would obtain no information at all about them, even if the person asked of had every information to give. The question is generally a leading question; and it is singular that people never think what must be the answer to this question before they ask it: for instance, “Has he had a good night?” Now, one patient will think he has a bad night if he has not slept ten hours without waking. Another does not think he has a bad night if he has had intervals of dosing occasionally. The same answer has actually been given as regarded two patients—one who had been entirely sleepless for five times twenty-four hours, and died of it, and another who had not slept the sleep of a regular night, without waking. Why cannot the question be asked, How many hours’ sleep has —— had? and at what hours of the night?* “I have never closed my eyes all night,” an answer as frequently made when the speaker has had several hours’ sleep as when he has had none, would then be less often said. Lies, intentional and unintentional, are much seldomer told in answer to precise than to leading questions. Another frequent error is to inquire whether one cause remains, and not whether the effect which may be produced by a great many different causes, not inquired after, remains. As when it is asked, whether there was noise in the street last night; and if there were not, the patient is reported, without more ado, to have had a good night. Patients are completely taken aback by these kinds of leading questions, and give only the exact amount of information asked for, even when they know it to be completely misleading. The shyness of patients is seldom allowed for.

How few there are who, by five or six pointed questions, can elicit the whole case and get accurately to know and to be able to report where the patient is.

Means of Obtaining Inaccurate Information

I knew a very clever physician, of large dispensary and hospital practice, who invariably began his examination of each patient with “Put your finger where you be bad.” That man would never waste his time with collecting inaccurate information from nurse or patient. Leading questions always collect inaccurate information.

At a recent celebrated trial, the following leading question was put successively to nine distinguished medical men. “Can you attribute these symptoms to anything else but poison?” And out of the nine, eight answered “No!” without any qualification whatever. It appeared, upon cross-examination:—1. That none of them had ever seen a case of the kind of poisoning supposed. 2. That none of them had ever seen a case of the kind of disease to which the death, if not to poison, was attributable. 3. That none of them were even aware of the main fact of the disease and condition to which the death was attributable.

Surely nothing stronger can be adduced to prove what use leading questions are of, and what they lead to.

I had rather not say how many instances I have known, where, owing to this system of leading questions, the patient has died, and the attendants have been actually unaware of the principal feature of the case.

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