Email updates

Keep up to date with the latest news and content from BMC Medical Education and BioMed Central.

Open Access Research article

Dunno if you've any plans for the future: medical student indirect questioning in simulated oncology interviews

Céline Bourquin*, Friedrich Stiefel, Alexandre Berney and Pascal Singy

Author Affiliations

Psychiatric Liaison Service, Lausanne University Hospital, Les Allières, 1011 Lausanne-CHUV, Switzerland

For all author emails, please log on.

BMC Medical Education 2012, 12:8  doi:10.1186/1472-6920-12-8

Published: 2 March 2012



This exploratory study investigated the motives of medical students (N = 63) for using indirect questions of the type I don't know if [you have already heard about chemotherapies], I don't know how [you are], or I don't know what [you do for a living] in simulated patient interviews during a communication skills course.


I don't know questions (IDK-Qs) were observed during the initial evaluation of students' communication skills; they were systematically identified through video screening and subjected to a qualitative content and discourse analysis considering their context, their content, their intent and their effect on the simulated patients. To evaluate the specificity of medical students' IDK-Qs, the data were compared with a data set of oncologists (N = 31) conducting simulated patient interviews in the context of a Communication Skills Training (CST).


During the interviews, 41.3% of the students asked 1-6 IDK-Qs. The IDK-Qs were attributed to three content categories: medical/treatment questions (N = 24); lifestyle/psychosocial questions (N = 18); and "inviting questions" questions (N = 11). Most of the IDK-Qs had an exploratory function (46/53), with simulated patients providing detailed responses or asking for more information (36/53). IDK-Qs were rare in the oncologist sample compared to the student sample (5 vs. 53 occurrences).


IDK-Qs showed a question design difference between medical students and oncologists in simulated patient interviews. Among other reasons for this difference, the possible function of IDK-Qs as a protective linguistic strategy and marker for psychological discomfort is discussed.