Egotism is a common trait among doctors, although most of us keep it under adequate control when dealing with patients. The ideal doctor-parent encounter has been described as a collaboration among equals, each of which brings expertise to the exchange; the doctor knows medicine, the parent knows the child. This is the ideal, although sometimes the reality falls short of it. The way our medical system is now structured gives more power and influence to the doctor side of the relationship than the patient side. Things were not always this way; a century ago, a surplus of doctors with treatments of doubtful usefulness scrambled to attract patients. These days, however, physicians have many more therapies that actually work, plus the benefit of an enormous medical establishment behind them. So now doctors are usually the ones deciding who gets what treatment, which is on balance a good thing. In spite of that fact, good, experienced doctors will do their best to use their power over patients lightly, always inviting parents and patients to share in the authority.
Physician egotism can get in the way of good communication in several ways. A simple manifestation is the tug-of-war over whose time is more valuable, the doctors’ or the parents’. A good example of this conflict is the doctor who schedules far more patient appointments than he can accommodate in a day, then seems unaware of how keeping a parent waiting for hours can poison the atmosphere even before the evaluation has even begun. Parents usually understand long waits when they take their child to the doctor for an unanticipated acute problem. If the waiting room is full of children just like theirs, there is little the doctor can do except see them each in turn. But the subspecialist who packs his waiting room with too many scheduled patients is proclaiming, in effect, that his time is far more valuable than that of parents, who often must take off a full day’s work to bring their child to see him.
The egotistical doctor is one who tends to forget that the patient is the center of everything, the reason the parents are there in the first place. He forgets that the encounter is about the child, not the doctor. This attitude can show itself in a persistent tendency to turn the subject of the conversation away from the child and toward the doctor. The result may be harmless, as when a garrulous doctor is genuinely trying to relax the parents and their child with a friendly conversation about other things, or it may be more toxic, as when a doctor constantly talks about himself and what he does. The latter can be particularly trying to parents who have waited a long time to see the doctor, only to find their brief time with him taken up by extraneous chatter.
Although it can be annoying to parents, excessive egotism in your child’s doctor is generally a minor issue in the big picture of getting your child the evaluation she needs. I say this because, although there are exceptions to everything, for the large majority of doctors I have met who are more egotistical than the average, their self-centeredness does not get in the way of their medical skills. In fact, some subspecialties, such as high-risk surgery, almost require the physician to have a huge ego if he is to perform such surgeries effectively.
So it is largely a matter of the personal taste of the parents. If you find yourself irritated when talking with an excessively egotistical doctor, and if you think this is interfering with his proper evaluation of your child, the best thing to do is to be persistent in turning the conversation back to your child at every opportunity. Of course, if you are really irritated by his manner or the way he treats you, do your best not to see him again.
Christopher Johnson is a pediatric intensive care physician and author of Keeping Your Kids Out of the Emergency Room: A Guide to Childhood Injuries and Illnesses, Your Critically Ill Child: Life and Death Choices Parents Must Face, How to Talk to Your Child’s Doctor: A Handbook for Parents, and How Your Child Heals: An Inside Look At Common Childhood Ailments. He blogs at his self-titled site, Christopher Johnson, MD.
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