With doctors losing respect, perhaps it’s time to expose medicine’s dark side

The following is paraphrased documentation, authored by a physician I know, regarding an intoxicated patient in the ER:

1 a.m.: Patient is telling nurse, “Before I leave, I need everyone’s name for my lawsuit. Tell the phlebotomist that if he’s good, he’ll get a cut.”

1:40 a.m.: Patient is making inappropriate sexual comments and is verbally aggressive with medical staff. He is advised to stay in bed.

2:02 a.m.: Patient (who had been sleeping comfortably) wakes up and begins screaming obscenities at everyone. When a nurse asks why he was angry, he says, “What do you think, mother f*****? I will wipe your a**.” Multiple attempts to calm patient fail.

I will stop here, because the insulting language, obscene physical gestures, and eventual threats of physical abuse only become more vulgar and inappropriate. The attending recorded in the chart, word for word, the things that spewed from the patient’s mouth and, eventually, when he became physically aggressive, called the crisis team who came and restrained the patient.  The story was shared with me by one of the residents who had witnessed the entire discourse, and we laughed about the absurdity of some of the drunken babble. We also smiled in speaking about the state of mind of the doc who documented the conversation so meticulously in the chart. She must have just had it with the abuse and decided she was going to permanently record all the nonsense in the EMR.

As I sat by myself, thinking about the somewhat comical story, I realized that it really was not funny at all. This is the status quo. Health care professionals deal with patients like the one above every day. The verbal abuse and physical threats are so common that we have settled in to just trying to find some humor in them. This type of abuse is not unique to the health care field, but the difference is that you cannot just stop treating your abuser. You have to make sure he or she gets better. You cannot fire a patient in an ER who would die in the street if you kicked him out. Every doc or nurse has an anecdote in which they have been spit on, urinated on, cursed at, assaulted, or threatened.

In the medical world, we do not talk a lot about this aspect of our training and experience. Incoming residents have no idea that, along with their medical education, they will be getting a pedagogy in dealing with some seriously aggressive personalities. Whether it is a drunk patient in the ED, an angry family member, or the overtly psychotic patient on the psych ward, being on guard becomes second nature.

I remember one resident laughing hysterically as he described an enraged patient using the TV remote as weapon against his caretakers, swinging it in circles like a lasso. Or the time a family member broke into the medical lounge and attempted to physically intimidate a resident into changing a medical plan for a dying patient in the ICU. I have seen female trainees and attendings cat-called, harassed (both physically and verbally), and made to feel unsafe by the people they care for. It is tough to diagnose and treat someone when you cannot put your hands on them without fear of a violation of personal space.

This is medicine. There is so much beauty in the patient-doctor relationship and so much that I could say about the wonderful people whom I have learned from and loved while they were under my care. But, like anything else in life, medicine has a dark side that we rarely discuss with people outside of the field. With an increasing percentage of doctors feeling unappreciated, abused, and depressed, maybe it is time to share the whole story.

P.S. God bless nurses, who deal with this stuff even more often than docs do.

Ahmad Yousaf is an internal medicine physician who blogs at Insights on Residency Training, a part of NEJM Journal Watch.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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