I heard somewhere that doctors are judged by patients as soon as we walk in the door. We are held to high standards of behavior and knowledge – and rightly so. After all, we are given this incredible responsibility of keeping people healthy. But our ability to do our job is limited by regulations that make up the business of medicine: time constraints, insurance hurdles, meaningful use requirements, and coding issues. Few of us would count those as part of the good doctor’s toolbox, but these are the hidden forces that shape how we conduct our jobs.
With that in mind, here is a wish list of sorts for how patients might do their part in making the interaction pleasant and productive:
• I wish patients arrived on time. I often hear the counter argument that we doctors do not run on time, but that’s not the same. When we run late it is often for reasons that are beyond our control. On the other hand, patients coming on time indicates a respect for the doctor’s time and a commitment to their own health and well-being.
• It would be helpful if patients brought a medication list and, along with that, a list of their medical conditions. A list of their doctors is helpful as well. Not infrequently, when I ask a patient how they came to need a rheumatologist, the answer is “It should be in my records.” This is problematic, in part because what counts for records these days is actually an auto-filled document containing pages upon pages of repetitive information that is not germane to the problem at hand.
• If your practice is anything like mine, patients often bring up another problem or two at the end of the visit. Twenty minutes into the visit, as they are stepping off the exam table, they throw in “one last question” or an “oh, by the way.” This can run the gamut from chest pain or weight loss to disability paperwork or medical marijuana. Our patients may not be aware that we can only afford to spend 15-20 minutes with them.
It is also difficult for patients to identify which problems are related to their rheumatologic condition and which are not, leading them to expect us to weigh in on issues that are perhaps better discussed with their primary care physicians. And because we are physicians and want to do what we can for them, we also feel obligated to address all of their concerns. It would be helpful if patients came to the visit prepared with the issues they want to discuss in order of priority. Otherwise, we will never be able to satisfactorily address all of their concerns and still run an efficient practice.
• I have seen many patients who were unhappy with their previous rheumatologist. I have also had unhappy patients fire me and seek care elsewhere. I completely support this system as it leads to a self-selection of sorts. This works out for everyone involved, particularly for the patients. Some patients, though, feel the need to denigrate their other doctors to me in a conspiratorial manner, as if waiting for me to confirm their opinions. This makes me very uncomfortable. I discourage this behavior by reminding patients that symptoms evolve and that the previous doctor, in all likelihood, already did some of the preliminary work that allows the next doctor to seem brilliant in comparison.
• My assistant is fantastic. She can almost read my mind. My mentor at the University of Massachusetts, Dr. Kathy Upchurch, used to say that she saw her assistant more than she saw her husband. This is probably true for most of us who work full time. Our staffs have the unenviable job of keeping both patients and doctors happy, and they are largely responsible for the seamless operations that we run. It is very important to me that my patients treat our staff with respect.
In the end it comes down to this: In this age of managed care, the business of medicine has gotten in the way of the art of medicine. But, as with any human interaction, courtesy and respect make the whole enterprise much more rewarding.
Dr. Chan practices rheumatology in Pawtucket, R.I.