Your Doctor Isn't a Robot

robot doc.jpg

News flash- doctors are people. As such, we do people things. Please don’t punish us when we do.

I recently had a patient come in because he had been coughing for three weeks. This year’s cold and flu season was a particularly “coughy” one, so I was not surprised he had been coughing for so long. Although his cough did not worry me, it was obviously a concern to him, so I did my best to address his fears.

Although I did not think pneumonia was likely, it was a possibility. This, combined with his concern, was enough for me to order a chest x-ray. I sent him off to get the pictures taken, making sure to mark the order “STAT” so the radiologist would send a report the same day. A few hours later I sent the patient a message telling him that the results were normal and that he had nothing to worry about. I was confident I had done a good job and that the patient was satisfied.

He wasn’t.

Several weeks later I received a report on the results of the medical group’s most recent patient satisfaction survey. My scores had declined dramatically. I searched the report for an explanation and found it in the comments section. The coughing patient had left a scathing review, saying, “I went in for a cough that has lasted several weeks. Doctor Barrett ordered an x-ray but did not give me anything for the cough. He obviously does not care at all about his patient’s feelings.” Ouch!

In typical human fashion, I had focused on one thing, making sure he did not have a pneumonia. As I was waiting for the results to determine treatment, and as the x-ray was normal, I had notified him of the good news and forgotten to send in a cough medicine. Oops! What to some would be a harmless and understandable mistake was for him a capital crime. Off with my head! (And down with my patient satisfaction scores!)

Such disproportional wrath has become a regular part of medical practice. It is not uncommon for patients to tell me how “bad” another doctor was. A recent patient complained to her insurance about her oncologist because of a side effect from chemotherapy. The fact that the doctor had picked the best medication and prescribed it appropriately did not matter. Her cancer was better, but she had gotten dehydrated and he needed to be punished.

I have heard doctors criticized for saying too much and others for being too quiet. One patient will complain about too long of a wait, the next will complain about a doctor only spending 15 minutes with him (for a 15-minute visit.)

I sometimes think patients do not understand our humanity. We work hard to avoid big mistakes such as incorrect medications and missed diagnoses, but we sometimes make little mistakes such as failing to click the “send” button after entering a medication, forgetting we had a meeting at the hospital and running late in the office, or forgetting a patient’s name.

The best patients understand this and extend us grace and a helping hand. They ask questions when communication is not clear, instead of saying we do not care. They forgive us when we have to check the chart to see what their name is. They save their complaints for serious mistakes and don’t jump to negative conclusions.

The very best patients go even further. They say, “Thank You.”

- Bart

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