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When It’s Time to Use IDK

No one can ever be expected to know everything about everything at the moment they need to know it.

Yet, if there’s one thing I’ve learned about medical providers – and too many health advocates, too – it is that there is a major reluctance to say “I don’t know.” It’s as if the fact that they don’t know something reflects on their ability to be useful. As if they are “less” because the answer isn’t right there in the front of their brains and rolling off their tongues.

I just don’t think that’s right, or fair, or kosher.

Whether it’s the psychology of dealing with patient-clients, or the databanks of information about any specific disease, to the ability to predict an outcome, to the “facts” of health and medicine (remember when margarine was better for you than butter?), the amount and nature of knowledge changes from minute-to-minute to day-to-day to year-to-year.

There is no one in this world who can know everything or have every answer at any given moment. Therefore, it’s absolutely fair to say, “I don’t know,” or “I’m not sure,” as long as it is followed by, “But I’ll try to get the answer for you,” or “We can look that up together,”? or some other promise to acquire the information.

Yet, I have watched and listened to providers (the most arrogant of them) give a half-answer, or a non-answer, or even an invented answer, rather than admit they aren’t up-to-date on something. You have, too.

Further, I’ve heard from advocates who are afraid to pull the trigger to go into business because they are afraid they don’t know as much as they think they should know. (Sadly, there is a good chance they’ll never know “enough” – because their personal bars are set so high that their goals will be unattainable.)

When you just don’t know, then it’s time to invoke IDK. I Don’t Know. Admitting you don’t know something, but that you’re willing to work toward getting the right answer, is an honest, and appreciated response to a question from a patient-client or his/her caregiver.

And the bonus is…. when you do look it up, or find the answer, then next time, you may know!

Client: I’m thinking I’d like to review a video of the surgery I’m scheduled for next Tuesday. Do you have any good resources for videos of surgeries?

You, the Advocate: That’s a great question! I don’t know which one would be the best for helping you understand your surgery, so give me a couple of days, and I’ll send you a link. Would that be OK?”


Client: If I just decide to stop taking this drug, will I suffer any withdrawal symptoms?

You: I don’t know – and since I’m not a doctor, I can’t advise you about taking or stopping any drug, or how to stop when when it’s time. So let’s contact your doctor’s office to get the information you need, then you can make your decision from there.

Two pieces of advice for you today:

1. If you observe a doctor or other provider try to fudge his/her way through answering a question for your client, politely suggest to your client that it would be a good idea to review the possibilities after you leave the office. Don’t let that provider have the last word if he or she isn’t willing to own up to the void in his/her knowledge.

2. If your client, or a fellow advocate, or anyone else asks you a question and you don’t know the answer – don’t sweat it! Look it up, or make a suggestion, or just provide a resource. Just be sure to follow up with something that indicates you’ll seek out the answer and, if necessary or desirable, report back to the person who asked.

There are many opportunities for the IDK response. Use it – liberally if necessary – and don’t let the fear of not knowing the right answer slow you down.

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When you don’t know an answer, it’s a major opportunity for learning. Embrace that opportunity.


1 thought on “When It’s Time to Use IDK”

  1. Trish You couldn’t be more right. Often professionals are afraid to say I don’t know and it gets them into trouble and lowers the trust factor significantly. There is never anything wrong with “”I don’t know” and if you are in a poisition to find out the answer “But let me see what I can find out and I will get back to you (state a specific time frame). Thank you for connecting with us and I will be talking with you by (date.). ” Building trust by being honest will reap so many more benefits.

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