“I don’t think I am the right doctor for you.”
In over 20 years of practice, I had never uttered those words before this year. Now, as my medical assistant of 20 years remarks, almost two years into the pandemic, I say it almost daily.
I like to think I am a good physician and listener, spending most of the outpatient visit time trying to understand what it is that the patient wants, needs, and what causes them anxiety, pain, or discomfort. I am not a “preachy” doctor. I am open-minded and try to listen more than I speak.
I can no longer sit by as my patients spew falsehoods and misinformation that natural immunity is superior to vaccination, masks spreading disease, and infertility associated with COVID vaccination. I will no longer let parents interrupt and berate my nursing and medical staff when they are simply doing their job and trying to help.
When the pandemic hit, the world began rallying around us, saying, “Health care workers are heroes!” and placing signs in front of the hospital “heroes work here” and bringing food to weary workers.
Now, 21 months into the global pandemic, so much has changed.
I am no longer looked to as a source of reliable medical information by many of my patients.
When about to pull a mask off a child and examine her face, I asked a mother if she and her child were vaccinated for COVID. She balked and said, “That is none of your business, and I don’t appreciate you asking that in front of my child.” The same mother went on to ask about a lesion on the neck. And as I started to answer that it was likely a congenital cyst that could have deeper connections, she responded: “Phff, I will just take her to a real doctor.” When I responded that I am an MD with double-board certifications, she said, “Don’t tell me how smart you are.”
As a pediatric dermatologist who recommends isotretinoin regularly for my patients with severe cystic acne, I am no longer listened to or valued when I list the well-known and fairly predictable side effects. I am told, instead, “I need to do my own research and get back to you.” When I ask what they mean by “research,” they refer to consulting with friends, TikTok and Facebook.
I try to extend grace to my patients and their families, understanding that we all have been thru forms of trauma and grief during this seemingly endless pandemic. But when they direct their aggression to my staff and me repeatedly and without regret, I have to set boundaries and stop caring for them. In a country where 1 out of 5 health care workers have left medicine since the start of the pandemic, I can’t help but wonder if the genie will ever be put back in the bottle and if the “right doctor” even exists.
Bari B. Cunningham is a dermatologist.
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