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Doctors DO NOT make the worst patients

There is no other stereotypical view of doctors that I refuse to subscribe to quite like the old adage that doctors make the worst patients. I don’t believe that it is necessarily true or that any doctor who becomes a patient should find any comfort or pride in it. If you have read many of my older posts, you’d know that I am entitled to that view. I am a doctor by training and have been a patient for quite some time, during which many doctors have explicitly told me or implied that I am a difficult patient (for being a doctor) from which many repercussions follow (Read Was it just in my head? (Part 1) and Was it just in my head? (Part 2) to find out more). This post is about changing that common misperception.

What do you mean by ‘make the worst patients’?

If by ‘worst patients’ you mean a patient who would take more than 15 minutes of your time discussing care plans, or a patient who would occasionally challenge your views and question your suggestions in order to achieve better healthcare outcomes – then you are very wrong. How would you expect a patient who is a doctor to remain indifferent knowing what they already know from years of studying and training? Besides aren’t you losing valuable opportunities to engage in discussions with your peer who is now your patient just because you think he/ she makes the worst patient? I hope you can see this for what it is – nothing but a self-limiting belief so widespread in the medical fraternity with negative consequences gone unchecked.

If you are a doctor treating another doctor as a patient….

Although you have every right to feel anxious about treating a colleague (maybe you fear that they know more than you or that they’ll judge your expertise), I’d suggest you acknowledge that feeling and don’t confuse it with he/she ‘being difficult’. Those are not the same. Therefore, they don’t produce a similar tone of voice and body language – tell-tale signs that may eventually give you away. And please, avoid telling your patient who is also a doctor that he/she is a difficult patient at all costs. Trust me, there’s nothing worse than hearing that coming from a fellow colleague. Besides, I couldn’t think of any positive effect of doing so. On the other hand, I could think of many overarching negative consequences that may result:

  • Damage to the patient-doctor relationship
  • Delayed diagnosis
  • Non-compliance to treatment or medications
  • Potential patient harm
  • Overall poorer healthcare outcomes for the patient

It is also crucial that you establish each other’s role from the beginning and continue to re-emphasise it throughout your interaction with your colleague who is now your patient. Never ever confuse your position relative to theirs. Some doctors struggle to understand their position when facing a patient who is a doctor to the point that they feel as if the patient had taken over their role or worse, that they’ve handed over their role to the patient. A doctor facing a role-ambiguity may very well feel overwhelmed and as a result believe that the patient who is a doctor is being particularly ‘difficult’. Is the patient really difficult or the lack of established role boundaries that have put both of you in this situation?

If you are a doctor who has become a patient

Stop believing that you make the worst patients. You don’t. The fact that you are a doctor shouldn’t be the reason why you are viewed negatively by your peers. Instead, it should be the reason why you would receive better care and improved healthcare outcomes. Your medical/ clinical knowledge should encourage further discussions with your doctors rather than become an obstacle which hinders open communication for fear of being ‘difficult’. Challenge your doctors’ decisions whenever you feel that you and your doctor could benefit from it. Intervene in your care whenever you feel that your doctors’ actions may jeopardise your safety as a patient. Your doctor may thank you if only you would put the self-limiting belief that you make the worst patient behind you.

However, exercise caution. I understand that assuming the all too familiar role of a doctor is much easier after having been trained in the field of medicine, but never forget where you stand in that patient-doctor relationship. Make a conscious effort to remind yourself that you are now the patient, NOT the doctor. So, don’t go dismissing your symptoms when they occur. Stop being your own doctor whenever you catch yourself trying to downplay your condition. Get medical attention when you need it without worrying too much about your colleagues’ perception of you. Worry about your diagnosis just like any other patient would if you need to and don’t be afraid to show your vulnerabilities. We all could benefit from being a real patient sometimes.

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Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay


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