Sunday, December 10, 2017

Phrases Patients Love to Hear, Part 2

4.  “Staying in bed won’t make this go away any faster.”
Many laymen believe illness requires rest. They skip work or school. Mothers go to great (and futile) length to keep children immobile. Travelers waste days in a boring hotel room. This myth is so universal that when I reassure non-English speaking guests, I ask them to repeat what I’ve just said. Almost always, they miss the negative.

5.  “The fever (or vomiting or diarrhea) won’t harm you.”
Temperature by itself - even to 104 - won’t damage a healthy person.  Patients should pay attention, but they needn’t worry that death is near. When patients ask for a genuinely dangerous temperature, I answer “over 105,” but this is less helpful than it sounds because at this level, patients feel very bad. Similarly, healthy laymen fear that a few episodes of vomiting or diarrhea will produce serious malnutrition.

6.  “You’ll feel under the weather for a few days; then you’ll feel better.”
Patients may suffer for a week, but once they see a doctor, they want things to move quickly, so I warn guests that this might not happen. In my experience, if I neglect this, patients become concerned if they’re not feeling better the next day and take advantage of #3.

7.  “It’s not your fault.”
All our efforts at patient education plus the popularity of alternative medical theories have convinced Americans that they are responsible for getting sick. This is occasionally true but mostly not.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Phrases Patients Love to Hear, Part 1

After years of practice, doctors learn to read patients’ minds. I’m proud of my skill, but some doctors do better than others. Here are phrases you love to hear; you should hear them more often.

1.  “You did the right thing.”
Sometimes doctors are so reassuring that patients leave the office unhappy - not at the doctor but themselves.  “I wasn’t sick enough come in,” they think.  “I wasted his time.  I must be a hypochondriac!”  Most often this happens with minor ailments or respiratory infections when we provide reassurance but no prescription. To prevent this, at the end of a visit I might say something like “You did the right thing to come in. Some patients with this symptom have.... but you just have... “

2.  “This isn’t a serious problem, and it never turns into a serious problem.” 
Doctors know that many tiresome problems such as hemorrhoids, bladder infections, migraine, or herpes are not ominous. They never turn into something worse, but many patients don’t know this. A doctor must tell them.

3.  “I want you to call me any time.”
Most patients assume doctors are constantly pestered by neurotics. In fact, almost everyone who calls me has a good reason. Anxious not to disturb the doctor, many sufferers struggle through the night, but that’s a bad idea.  The best time to call is when the urge first appears. To be honest, I don't think you'll ever hear this. 

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Lost in Translation Again

As I stepped out of the elevator, a Japanese man was waiting. “Are you the doctor for the hotel?” he asked.

I was pleased. “Yes. Are you going to interpret for me?”

He stepped back in alarm and waved his English-Japanese phrase book. Hiding my disappointment, I followed him to the room. When he began flipping through the booklet, I shook my head and pointed to the phone before dialing the guest’s Japanese insurance service for an interpreter. There followed a lengthy encounter as the phone passed back and forth between me, the father, and the patient.

The patient had complained of fatigue the previous day. He was otherwise in good health with no other symptoms, and I found nothing abnormal on examination. Sudden fatigue is an ominous sign in the elderly but rarely in a child. I suspected an emotional problem, perhaps from the stress of foreign travel. This is hard to explain across both language and culture, made even harder because I didn’t give a medicine. Giving medicine is a universal language; that’s why doctors prescribe even when it isn’t necessary.

Luckily these were Japanese, so they listened with unfailing courtesy, through the interpreter, to my reassurance and advice (get a good night’s sleep, continue with their itinerary, call if the problem persisted), nodding approval, and thanking me effusively as I left.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Lack of Patience

“How quickly can you get here?”

“Pretty quick, but I like to talk to the guest first. Would you connect me?”

I didn’t assume this was an emergency; guests who make urgent requests are more often impatient than sick.

“How quickly can you get here?” asked the guest impatiently.

“Pretty quick. What’s going on?”

“It’s my assistant. He’s got the flu.”

“Could you tell me what’s bothering him?”

“I’m not a doctor. That’s why I called you.”

I suppressed a surge of annoyance. “People mean different things when they say ‘the flu.’ Is he vomiting?”


“Is he feverish?”

“Yes. I have a dinner reservation at 6:30. Can you make it?”

It was 5:30. Unless guests feel truly miserable (vomiting, pain) they are usually willing to wait, so I like to delay dinnertime calls until rush hour traffic dwindles. But hotel doctoring is a competitive business, and if I disappointed this demanding caller, he might ask the concierge to suggest someone else.

Creeping 1½ miles to the freeway onramp took fifteen minutes, but then traffic moved steadily, and I arrived on time. In hotel doctoring, delivering medical care is the easiest part. The patient suffered a bad cold and didn’t consider it a serious problem. In person, his boss seemed congenial.

On my drive back, the freeway stopped cold. I took an exit three miles from home.  Despite this, traffic crawled so slowly I was expecting a blocked lane ahead, but it was just the rush hour. It took an hour. On the bright side, I had finished half my dinner when the call arrived, so I wasn’t hungry. And in hotel doctoring, when you finish seeing one patient, you go home.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Too Many Cooks

As I was preparing for bed, a call arrived from one of my favorite hotels, the Palomar. It’s large and upscale but mostly I like it because it’s only a short drive. The caller explained that his nine year-old son had been coughing for three days.

“I started him on phenoxymethy penicillin,” he added.

 “Does he have a bad sore throat?” I asked. Penicillin treats strep throat and no other common childhood illness, but the presence of coughing makes strep unlikely.

“No. I thought it might help… My brother is a pediatric consultant in London. He gave me a Ventolin inhaler.”

“Did that help?”

“A little.”  That means 'no,' but it was a good idea. Asthma inhalers often relieve a cough even in patients without asthma.

“I’m a doctor who comes to hotels. Would you like me to see him?” I asked.

“My wife wonders if I should take him to a clinic for a chest x-ray and blood tests.”

“Unless he’s very sick, that’s not necessary.”

“Maybe you should come. Can you give him cortisone?”

“I carry cortisone….”

“So you could give him an injection?”

“I’d have to examine him first.”

After consulting with his wife, he said “We will wait for you.”

I exchanged my pajamas for a suit, filled out my encounter form, and was about to leave when the phone rang. It was the Palomar, and I knew what that meant. Guests don’t like to cancel in person, so a hotel employee delivered the message.

“The gentleman says he’s decided to take the child to an urgent care clinic.”

“There’s none in this area open so late. He’ll have to go to the UCLA emergency room.”

“Thanks for the information. I’ll tell him.”

I reverted to my pajamas and went to bed where I passed an uneventful night. The Palomar guest probably passed it in the emergency room.

Monday, November 20, 2017

The Wonders of GPS

My wife and I wanted to visit the Riverside photography museum, seventy miles away.

During this time there was a 50-50 chance of a hotel call, but only half require a visit. Our luck didn’t hold, and my phone rang after forty miles; someone was vomiting, not a visit I can stall. When I asked directions to the address from my iPhone, it claimed no such location existed. Since this was an insurance call, the patient was not an English-speaker. She had phoned the insurance office in Miami whose dispatcher (also not a native English speaker) phoned me. Addresses often become garbled.

I called the patient’s number and heard a busy signal, always a bad sign on today’s phones. I was forced to call the insurance number, spending a few minutes on hold before reaching a different dispatcher who spent several minutes researching before turning up the correct address.

Then the iPhone GPS worked its magic, laying out a very specific route to an obscure area near Long Beach thirty miles away. While I took care of the patient, she looked up a nearby restaurant on an iPhone App. We ate lunch and returned home.

Two days later we repeated the drive, this time successfully. Most photography museums are art galleries, but Riverside’s is part of the University of California, so it delivers large dose of history with displays of old cameras and old photographs. Driving home with the rush hour approaching, I kept an eye on the iPhone GPS, marveling at its accuracy at predicting freeway jams.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Suitophobia, Part 2

The only American doctors who don’t worry about malpractice suits are fresh out of training. They believe that practicing good medicine will keep them safe. Once they are sued, they join the worriers.

Fifteen percent of surgeons are sued every year. It’s twenty percent for high-risk subspecialties like neurosurgery and cardiac surgery. Family doctors like me do better -- only five percent per year. This means that every doctor is sued sooner or later. Mostly we win, and almost no one pays a penny even if we lose, but it’s a miserable experience. I work hard to find material for this blog, but you’ll never read about my suit.

One reason doctors are sued for malpractice is malpractice, but plenty of other reasons exist.

Hollywood generally presents doctors in a good light, but in the dozen or so movies about medical malpractice, the doctor character is always evil. Hollywood generally presents lawyers in a bad light, but in those same movies about malpractice, the victim's lawyer is always the hero. 

I once wrote a courtroom drama about a surgeon who was committing malpractice – doing hysterectomies strictly for the money. But he had a pleasant personality, so patients liked him (in the movies these doctors are always sleazy); he was a skillful surgeon, so there were no pitiful victims to testify, and he had a smart lawyer, so he won. I thought the story was deliciously ironic, but the number of editors who agree is holding steady at zero.