I’ll admit it: patient interviews make me nervous.
Even more nervous than interviewing that very busy, very important neurosurgeon or the no-nonsense nurse who just sticks to the facts.
When you interview a patient, you are an extension of her care. You must be just as kind, patient and respectful as all of her caregivers. Plus, you’ve got to find a way to get great quotes even though most people don’t speak in quotable sentences.
While handwritten notes vs. audio recording vs. typing up an interview is a matter of personal preference, I find that these tips help any interview go smoothly, provide the patient with great service and still give me an amazing story.
- Prepare, prepare, prepare. If possible, talk to the doctor and/or nurse first and get the full story, including the medical details that patients forget. Write questions ahead of time for parts that you want to focus on with the patient. Sometimes you’ll know the answers to your questions, but you need them in a nice quote in the patient’s voice.
- Pick a comfortable place. If possible, I like to interview people in person, somewhere private where they are comfortable, such as in their home or at the hospital or doctor’s office. If you have to do it over the phone, make the call at a time the patient chooses and from a place you won’t be disturbed.
- Start with small talk. Introduce yourself in a warm, friendly way and let the patient do the same. Tell her upfront exactly how you’ll use her story and what to expect from the conversation. The more at ease she is with you, the more open she’ll be. Start with easy questions, “Are you having a good week? What do you do for a living? How’s your family?”
- Let her tell it. After she is comfortable, simply ask her to tell you the story from the beginning. Every patient has her own interpretation of her story. She may leave certain parts out because she’s embarrassed or because it’s too painful to remember. Don’t push her to recall those parts of her story if she seems uncomfortable. Remember, you’re being kind and respectful. You aren’t a reporter looking for a scoop.
- Don’t interrupt. Let her get through her story first. Write questions down as you go and circle back after she’s finished. You can definitely make conversational noises (“Yes,” “uh-huh,” “no way!”) and empathize, but don’t make her stop the flow of her own story. The longer people talk, the more detailed and open they’ll get. Interrupting may be off-putting, costing you great quotes you otherwise would have gotten.
- Avoid yes or no questions. “Yes” is never a good quote. Instead of asking, “Did it hurt after your surgery?” ask, “How did you feel after your surgery?” Let her run with her answer. If you want more, be quiet for a second, and it’s likely she’ll share more. If not, ask a follow-up, “How did your nurses help you? How did your doctor help you?”
My very last tip for patient interviews is to sincerely thank the patient – repeatedly. She didn’t have to take the time to talk to you. She didn’t have to share her story, but she did. For that she deserves a thank-you note or email!
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