Give Patients Can'ts but Also Can Do's

William G. Wilkoff, MD

April 01, 2022

On his last shift in the last hockey game of the regular season, our 14-year-old grandson broke his arm. Although this was his first fracture, the rest of the nuclear family has had ample experience with orthopedic trauma over the last year, both planned and unplanned.

As I drove Peter and my daughter-in-law to his first postsetting and casting appointment I told him how sorry I was that he had been told "no contact sports for the next 3 months." This was a tough pill for a kid eager to begin his first high school lacrosse season. Then I asked him what the doctor had told him he could do in the way of activity.

Based on personal and professional experience I was not surprised when he told me that no one had suggested things he could be doing. In fact, being a cautious and thoughtful kid, he was concerned about what he should be doing around the house let alone any athletic activities. It turns out he wasn't even lifting his laptop computer with two hands because some nurse had told him not to lift anything over 2 pounds.

I told him "Peter, even some of the most experienced doctors focus on the 'can'ts' and forget to tell you the 'cans' and 'shoulds.' While you're in the waiting room make up a mental list of what you would like to be doing that you aren't."

As he climbed back in the car for the ride home I asked how the visit went. The x-ray showed good alignment and the doctor was pleased. But, as I predicted, they were already on the launch pad to the receptionist to make a follow-up appointment without the physician uttering a single word about what activities he could resume. Always a very coachable kid, Peter piped up with the list he had created in the waiting room and was relieved to hear that he could do anything as long as it didn't hurt. In fact, the doctor encouraged him to use his fingers because it might speed the healing.

Not every patient, regardless of age, is as cautious as my grandson and in some circumstances the physician must err on the side of emphasizing the "don'ts." However, in my experience, too many physicians forget to include a generous list of "can do's" in their visit closing discussions. This oversight is a mistake for several reasons.

First, and maybe most importantly, even a brief discussion of "can do's" can soften the depressing message that the patient will not be able to do things he or she enjoys. I can't quote the references but I am sure there is plenty of evidence that depression slows the healing process.

Second, and this is particularly true in older patients with orthopedic problems – failure to include a plan for return to activity can hinder recovery. I can recall more than a few patients who were seen in the emergency department and diagnosed with sprains but not given even the simplest instructions on how to begin moving the injured joint. When they finally returned to see me we had to begin the painful and unnecessary project of thawing a frozen joint.

Fortunately, we have evolved past the era when best rest was near the top of the list of our recommended remedies. However, there still remains a bias against activity in some situations. The most recent example is the evolving strategies for the management of concussion. There is some evidence that involving the patient in a return to activity plan may shorten the time to recovery. The myth about brain rest has been slow to die.

Finally, providing the patient with a personalized list of "can do's" makes good business sense because it can head off those time-gobbling call backs that tie up you and your office staff. As an experienced physician, you have probably learned the most frequently asked "Can Jason do ... ?" questions. Make your own list and give the patient your answers. An ounce of anticipatory guidance is worth hours on the telephone or sorting through the email inbox.

Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including "How to Say No to Your Toddler." Other than a Littman stethoscope he accepted as a first-year medical student in 1966, Wilkoff reports having nothing to disclose. Email him at

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