Medical profession is one of such fast paced environments and a very challenging one at that. Apart from the voluminous wealth of knowledge one should have, it involves thinking on one’s feet, making quick decisions of dire consequences and communicating such.
Add these to the possibility of making mistakes, getting complaints, failing exams, losing one’s medical licence, being struck off the register and so on, and this explains why anxiety, stress and exhaustion are commonplace in this profession.
These emotions are amplified for stammering doctors, for whom unlike professionals dealing with computers, clay or pots, verbal communication is inevitable. I am one of those.
The following are some of my most challenging workplace scenarios:
- Phone calls: This is a very tough one as often I may need to make a referral via telephone, or contact a patient to pass an urgent information or call a senior for help. The most challenging part of this is when I’m asked to say the NHS number. This is a 10-digit number which will usually have the number 4, 6 or 7 (my stumbling blocks). A few listeners are patient with me, probably having recognised the stutter from the start of the conversation. Most are not. A common response is “I’m sorry your line is breaking up”, or “The connection is poor, please can you repeat?” or worse still, they could hang up. At this point, I’m not only dealing with anxiety from the fact that the number won't come out of my mouth, but anxiety that the person at the other end may hear the wrong number (patient safety being at stake), and then embarrassment as I have colleagues on the table who can hear me struggling. Sometimes I’ve had to ask a colleague to help me call out the NHS number to the person on the phone or I’ve had to tell the person at the call end, “it’s not the network. I stammer. I’ll start again please”.
- Handover - Hospital handover meetings are usually full of people from consultants to medical students. As a junior doctor, I’m expected to narrate the cases seen during the on-call shift, going through each patient’s biodata, background history, diagnosis, treatment so far, response and any issues during the shift. Woe betide me if there were too many patients. I still must go through the drill. This is my worst part of being on-call, yet I must go through this torture after every on-call shift (and in my last post, twice during each on-call shift). Even though nobody says so, I feel this guilt and pressure to talk quickly as I do not want to waste people’s time. Thereby worsening my stammer.
- Emergencies - In the frenzy of an emergency, patience is far-fetched. This heightens anxiety and fear for the stammerer. Fear of mistakes happening due to poor communication and anxiety about slowing down the team. Consequently, I focus on the practical jobs, shying away from making any verbal contributions except I’m directly involved.
- Voice dictation - This is supposed to be an efficient way of updating patient records or making referrals but for a stammerer, it is not quite quick and could introduce errors, so I fall back to typing everything by hand.
- Presentations - As a trainee, we have weekly teachings and I will fall into the rota at some point. Sometimes I start with a disclaimer that I’m a stammerer especially for a new audience so that I’m not misjudged as being anxious.
These and many more conditions of the workplace makes it tougher for a stammering doctor. Everyday for me is a very big challenge I must overcome. I could do with some understanding colleagues.
Today is International Stammering Awareness Day and I just want to raise awareness to non stammering workplace colleagues on what stammerers would really appreciate from you:
- Be patient.
- See the value we carry rather than the stammer.
- Give us your attention.
- Do not finish our sentences.
And for employers (in the spirit of diversity and inclusion) to try to make reasonable adjustments in the workplace for people who stammer. Things like time limits or specific introduction formats for phone conversations may discriminate against stammerers.
Stammerers in the workplace need you to be their allies.