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The medical history represents the single-most important opportunity to obtain individualized medical information. Since it is an opportunity and not a guaranteed source of information, the caregiver or patient during the interview may unknowingly miss critical data. Language proficiency, patient and caregiver cognitive abilities, readiness to change behavior, interest in seeking health care, and personal comfort with the practitioner are only a few factors that may influence the ability to obtain vital information. The information in this chapter can enhance the health care provider’s ability to obtain patient information and to delve more deeply into patient motivation and understanding than the classically structured patient history. It assumes that it is a caregiver of a patient that is being interviewed, but the principles described apply to interviewing patients when developmentally appropriate. A more detailed discussion of communication approaches is provided in Chapter 3.


Table 4-1 describes the traditional patient history. The typical history focuses on gathering a variety of specific information in a brief period of time. The very important information recorded in the traditional history is an organized synopsis and a necessary summary of medications, surgeries, and major medical events. The degree of detail present in the various components is highly variable and should be tailored in response to the purpose and duration of the visit. The traditional history provides early valuable insight into factors influencing a patient’s motivation for seeking care.

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Table 4-1. Components of the Classic Patient History

The challenge of the medical history is to not lose sight of the patient and caregiver’s often unstated goals. A significant hazard of the traditional medical history is losing valuable information that may not present itself if the patient feels overwhelmed with a long list of simple closed-ended questions.1 Approaching the medical history as a “laundry list” of simple questions with simple, 1-word, or yes/no answers, the health care provider will often prevent patients and caregivers from expressing pertinent concerns and from identifying barriers to care. Often, large parts of the medical history can be obtained from ...

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