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The Doctor Diaries: What Physicians Wish Patients Knew

Revelations about weight loss, medical information on the internet, and more

The torso of a doctor in a white lab coat with stethoscope holding a patient's hand.

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Most doctors want to be trusted confidants of their patients.

En español |  Joanne Jarrett, M.D., polled dozens of doctors to find out what they’d tell you if only they could, and here are the results. 

We are working on your case, even if it looks like we have disappeared.

Physicians often forget how scary being in the hospital can be. Rest assured that when the doctor is not at your bedside, he or she is writing up your evaluation, the plan and the orders outlining what needs to be done for you, all the while checking for test results and recalculating the diagnosis and plan. You may not see him or her until the next day, but your doctor or the physician on call is available by phone continuously to address your concerns.

When we keep you waiting, it’s not because we think our time is more valuable than yours.

But if the patient before you mentions blood in his or her stool or talks about suicidal impulses, your appointment needs to wait. Your best bet is to schedule the first appointment of the day.

We need complete honesty from you.

This means telling us what drugs you’ve taken, legal and illegal, so we can help you avoid interactions. It means answering honestly about sexual function and behavior, even if you fear we wouldn’t approve. We think no less of patients who struggle with mental or emotional issues. 

We know lifestyle change is hard and boring. 

We try and fail often ourselves. But sometimes diet, exercise and/or alcohol abstinence really are the best treatments. 

Many of us have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

I have nightmares about patients down an infinite hall, each with a problem worse than the last. In my short career, I’ve seen a baby take her last breaths. I’ve watched a woman, bleeding uncontrollably after giving birth, lose consciousness as I worked, a pool of her blood expanding at my feet. I’ve heard a woman, after having both legs traumatically severed, saying goodbye to her father, assuming she wouldn’t survive. I could go on. We know we signed up for it. But keep in mind, when you’re tempted to be angry with your doctor, that we are under stress, too.  

We wish we had better advice for weight loss.

Medical schools don’t spend much time on nutrition. Although body weight has significant, holistic health implications, the field of medicine is at somewhat of a loss here. Our best advice, however vague it might be, is to increase your physical activity, avoid processed foods and eat vegetables at most meals. 

Yes, some of us are jerks.

Most doctors mean well and are doing their best. But if you are not getting a sense that your physician, although human and harried, has your best interests at heart, find one who does.

We worry about you.

We lie awake worried sick about you more often than you’d imagine. We may wonder about you for years after you leave our care. The stakes are so high, and we know it. 

Sometimes the internet is right.

There, I said it. You can find useful health information online. We love a well-read, inquisitive patient, and we’ll be happy to touch on any of your internet-fueled fears. Just be careful. The internet can lead you to unnecessary panic or to dismiss something that shouldn’t be ignored. And be wary of discussion boards; incorrect advice can be very convincing. Remember, there is no substitute for medical training, experience and complex analysis.  

We know you’ve answered this question already. 

We’re sorry to ask again. When you call for an appointment, you’re asked what’s going on. Then, when you’re checked in, you’re asked again. So when you finally get to see the doctor, you’re sick of the story. But we can’t help it. We have to hear it with our own ears.

We make mistakes.

Our fear of screwing up is exhausting, weighty and ever present — it’s the hardest thing about doctoring. We do make mistakes. Be wary of anyone who won’t admit that.

Falls frighten us.

Especially for patients in their 60s. We see the transformation from healthy and active to ill and dependent far too often, and frequently it’s because of a fall. A preventive measure: Stand next to a strong countertop, then stand on just one foot without holding on. If you need support before the five- to 10-second mark, your balance should be addressed.

We want you to make decisions while clearheaded. 

Having a written description of your medical-treatment wishes (an advance directive) will ease emergency situations for you, your care team and your loved ones. All hospital patients are asked what their wishes would be if their breathing or heartbeat were to stop, but it’s better to make a clearheaded decision when you’re not gripped by fear. You can find a legal advance directive form at AARP's Advanced Directive Forms.

Tell us if you are having memory issues.

Feeling as though your memory’s failing is scary, especially as you reach your 60s and 70s. But memory issues are often caused by things a doctor can help with (depression, heart problems, medication effects and hormone abnormalities). Oh, and avoid multitasking. It’s overrated. 

Antibiotics hurt if they can’t help.

We need to reserve antibiotics for susceptible bacterial illnesses. When we prescribe them inappropriately, such as for a viral illness, we do little more than undermine our ability to treat disease in the future.

We are trusted confidants.

I had a patient for years who finally opened up to me about her long-standing depression. She said she hadn’t told me sooner because she didn’t want to ruin my impression of her. Confide in us. Mental health issues are more common than you realize; the more we know, the more we can help.

We dread retirement.

It’s a cliché that doctors don’t retire, but one reason we’re reluctant is that we’re afraid of no longer being useful. Patients who seem happier in retirement have support networks, plus activities that feel helpful or significant.

We want the very best for you.

Just know that. It’s the bottom line. 

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