Her visit seemed uneventful enough. Back for the semester break of her senior year, Jenna came in for acne follow-up.
She seemed to be doing pretty well: just a couple of active papules on each cheek, as well as some residual fading red marks from old lesions. Still, Jenna was not happy with her situation.
“I’ve been taking minocycline since September,” she said, “and I’m still breaking out.”
“Some of the marks you have just haven’t had time to fade away yet,” I said. “But since you’re still getting new ones, perhaps we should change antibiotics. After 4 months, it’s not likely that the one you’re taking will clear you up as fully as you want. Perhaps a different one will, although complete clearing can be a hard goal to reach.”
I discussed alternative choices with Jenna, settling on one as being most likely to help and unlikely to cause problems while she was away at school. I encouraged her to continue the same topical treatment she was on – she had had “reactions” to several previous topical tries – to contact me with any problems, and to return in May.
As I wrote up her prescriptions, I asked her about her academic major.
“Electrical engineering,” she said. “My goal is to work for a couple of years, then get advanced degrees in both engineering and law. I want to fuse both disciplines in a business context.”
I congratulated her on her clarity of vision. Few college seniors have more than a vague notion of where they’re headed. I wished her well and left the room.
Because the encounter seemed pleasant and innocuous, I was taken aback when my secretary came in a couple of hours later.
“Jenna’s father has called twice,” she said. “He says he’s furious that you didn’t spend enough time with his daughter or answer all of her questions.”
Sighing inwardly, I sat down during a break and called her.
“This is Dr. Rockoff,” I said. “I understand that you were unhappy with your visit.”
“That’s right,” she said, evenly. “Very unhappy. You only spent five minutes with me. I forgot to ask you all my questions.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “What questions did you forget to ask me?”
“I have marks on my back where the acne used to be, and they haven’t gone away.”
“I see,” I said. “I thought we had covered that in connection with the marks still on your face, but I’m sorry if I didn’t make that clear. The marks need to fade on their own, and they will, though it will probably take a few more months.”
“You didn’t give me enough time at my previous visit,” she said. “I give people the benefit of the doubt, so I gave you a second chance, and again you kept me waiting, and then you didn’t spend enough time with me.”
“I’m very sorry that I didn’t meet your expectations,” I said. “If you come back to see me, I will try to do a better job. If you decide you want to get care elsewhere, of course I’ll be happy to forward your records to another physician.”
“I gave you a second chance,” Jenna said, “and again you failed to spend adequate time or deliver satisfactory service.”
“Again, my apologies,” I said. I wished her luck and ended the call.
After all these years, I think I’m pretty good at picking up physical and verbal cues of anger and dissatisfaction, but clearly I missed them all in Jenna’s case. Like everyone else, I’ve had my share of unhappy patients, but I’m hard put to remember being laid out in lavender with such gusto before.
When I finally hang up my spurs, there are a lot of things about practicing medicine that I will miss. Being chastised by self-righteous and unforgiving youngsters less than a third my age will not be one of them.
Dr. Rockoff practices dermatology in Brookline, Mass., and is a longtime contributor to Dermatology News. He serves on the clinical faculty at Tufts University, Boston, and has taught senior medical students and other trainees for 30 years. His second book, “Act Like a Doctor, Think Like a Patient,” is available at amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org .