Published in American Urological Association News - July 2018

Reprinted with permission from AUANews, volume 23, issue 7, 2018; © American Urological Association 2018.

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Questions vs Answers

From our first day of preschool to our last day of residency, our performance is largely determined by our capacity to deliver the right answer in the right moment. The better a surgeon’s ability to deliver the right answer, the better their ability to help patients and build a thriving practice... Or so the story goes.

Lately, I’ve been wondering if the medical community’s emphasis on having the “right answer” is the wrong approach to training the next generation of surgeons.

The Risk of Being Answer-Obsessed

When the objective is having the right answer, learning becomes an act of memorization as opposed to higher learning. When education becomes a glorified fact-checking process, thoughtful questions aren’t asked, new connections aren’t made and development occurs at a snail’s pace.

What if we shifted the emphasis away from having the answer? This isn’t to say that having the wrong answer to established medical knowledge or best practices would be acceptable, but what if we reinforced asking thoughtful questions as a valued part of the education process? You know, the kind of questions that

  • stimulate higher thought and deeper thinking

  • ultimately lead to medical breakthroughs and innovations

  • challenge dogma or even our answers

What if we taught medical and surgical students to make a strong habit of asking questions, the same way we encourage them to make a habit of having the right answers?

Questions for Established Surgeons

This applies not only to medical students and young surgeons, but to established surgeons as well. Established surgeons (including yours truly) can benefit mightily from asking more questions. Asking questions is how we learn to reengage with our professional passion.

When we ask ourselves “why did we get into this career in the first place?” we can reconnect with the reasons we started our adventure. Asking “what makes me happy?” and “for what am I grateful?” is how we create a better attitude for ourselves and deal with many of the unique frustrations of working in the surgical field.

Questions such as “what are other perspectives to look at this?“ and “how would it feel to be in their shoes?” are key to improving our capacity for communication and mutual understanding with our patients, with our families and with our colleagues. When we create time to reflect on a busy day at the practice and ask ourselves “what can I get better at?” and “what new things am I learning?,” we inspire and influence ourselves to truly improve.

If we want to build reciprocity in our roles and relationships, and if we want to ensure our lives are fueled by a cooperative exchange of give and take, we must engage with questions like “what is my give and my take in this role?” and “what is fair to everyone involved?”. However, most importantly, if our goal as surgeons and members of an essential health care field is to find simple solutions to complex problems, then we must be encouraged to ask questions.

Stay Well.