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The Art of Saying, ‘I Don’t Know’

0 2 years ago

My wife and I had been married for 3 or 4 years when I became aware that a small cluster of my new in-laws had taken to referring to me as “Dr. I-don’t-know.” It wasn’t hard to figure out how I had earned this potentially derogatory moniker. As the only physician in the family it was not unusual for me to be peppered with medical questions. Most were unanswerable, at least by me. For example, “Will, how does aspirin work?” — which in the 1970s wasn’t something covered in medical school. Other questions were asked in a context that made it clear my answer was going to be so far removed from the preformed opinion of the questioner that Thanksgiving dinner didn’t feel like an appropriate occasion for my answer. “I don’t think I really know,” seemed to make the most sense.

In those early growing years of my outpatient general practice my in-laws weren’t the only people who must have thought of me as “Dr. I-don’t-know.” My training took place in well-thought-of teaching hospitals and during my senior residency and military tour I did enough moonlighting that by the time I entered private practice I had logged a lot of hours in the trenches. But, there were still a ton of things I didn’t know.

You probably remember how those first few years on the outside of the ivory towers felt with no one handy to ask. Even if there was someone a phone call away you didn’t want to appear as incompetent as you were by telling the patient or family that you needed to call the department head at your training program.

So, what did you do? You called. But you developed some clever language that could buy you time while you called your old mentor or hit the books. There was no Internet. Generally, that script would start with some version of “I don’t know, but …”


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