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So Many Patient Complaints, Not Enough Time

Primary care physicians often have to see patients with a litany of issues — often within a span of a 15-minute office visit.

This places the doctor in the middle of a tension: Spend more time with the patient to address all of the concerns, but risk the wrath of patients scheduled afterwards, who are then forced to wait. And in some cases, it’s simply impossible to adequately address every patient question during a given visit.

It’s a situation that internist Danielle Ofri wrote recently about in the New York Times. In her essay, she describes a patient, who she initially classified as the “worried well” type:

… a thin, 50-year-old educated woman with a long litany of nonspecific, unrelated complaints and tight worry lines carved into her face. She unfolded a sheet of paper on that Thursday morning in my office with a brisk snap, and my heart sank as I saw 30 lines of hand-printed concerns.

Ms. W. told me that she had recently started smoking again, after her elderly mother became ill, and she was up to a pack a day now. She had headaches, eye pain, pounding in her ears, shortness of breath and dizziness. Her throat felt dry when she swallowed, and she had needling sensations in her chest and tightness in her gut. She couldn’t fall asleep at night. And she really, really wanted a cigarette, she told me, nervously eying the door.

This is the kind of patient who makes me feel as though I’m drowning.

Dr. Ofri did as many doctors do: She listened appropriately, went over the patient’s history and physical, reviewed prior tests, and concluded that many of her symptoms were due to anxiety. Except, in this case, they weren’t. The patient eventually had a pulmonary embolus, and hospitalized. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at KevinMD.com*

Blood Print: “Am I, The Doctor, Bleeding?”

I’m diligently writing a detailed note in the patient’s chart as he speaks of his multiple concerns — severe depression, headaches, and dizziness. I’m not making good eye contact. Often this is effective because I can resist the allure of passively following his narrative to its own diagnostic suspicions. Instead I can record his intuitive guesses without persuasion, formulating my own independent ideas even as I value his. Except that as I write in his chart I notice streaks of red blood appearing among the black script. Am I hallucinating? Am I capable of making paper bleed? Am I, the doctor, bleeding?

With closer inspection I notice three small cuts on my chapped knuckles and fingers, products of the incessant and obsessive handwashing compelled by modern medicine. We are obliged to wash our hands before and after each patient contact, which leads to about 60 hand washings per day. In the dry winter air this can become punishing to the integrity of the skin barrier.

I apologize to the patient for marring his chart, yet it almost seems symbolic — physician blood spilled upon a script of human affliction. I know I should tear the page out of his chart and write a clean new one, yet the scrawls of black ink and stripes of red blood look like art. It is a poem, punctuated with living iron and crimson flourish. Despite having made poor eye contact in an attempt to distance and strengthen my consideration of his symptoms, ironically I see the commonality of our bleeding.

*This blog post was originally published at The Examining Room of Dr. Charles*

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