Mar 27, 2011

What Is Nice Patient Syndrome?

A reader writes:

"My doctor says I'm one of the nicest patients he's ever met. He says that really nice people always get the rare incurable diseases. How can that be?"
Oh no! You've got Nice Patient Syndrome! Your prognosis is grim!

There's only one cure: Do something horrible quick! And I'm not talking about saying a dirty word or two. It takes serious antisocial mommas-lock-up-your-babies-cause-there's-a-crazy-person-with-an-axe behavior to save you from the terrible fate of Nice Patient Syndrome!

Why would the nicest human beings end up with the worst diseases?

Ask any doctor, nurse, or therapist... We've all noticed it. The most saintly human beings any of us have met seem to be the ones that get the rare, miserable, and rapidly fatal diseases. We are all astonished at the sheer angelic goodness of these patients, and we tweet message after heartfelt message about how our patients heal our hearts than we could ever heal them.

Ever notice how this shit only happens to the nicest people?

Nice Patient Syndrome really does bring out the best in the assholish medical profession. We give hugs, we fluff pillows, we do bake sales in our spare time. Dr. D once bought a ton of medicines for a nice patient who couldn't afford them. After their untimely demise we go to the funerals of our nice patients and tell their relatives how we never met a better human being.
I'm sad to hear that your doctor thinks you are wonderful, because that means have a really scary disease.
And here's the real kicker: You aren't half as nice as all the doctors and nurses who are fawning over you think. And they aren't crying for you when their eyes well with tearsthey're crying for themselves.

Mental Distortion
One thing you have to realize about healthcare workers is that all of us have been traumatized, whether we admit it or not.
Your average graduating medical or nursing student has seen as much death, pain, and misery as a soldier returning from a war. Most of us wouldn't admit that this affects us. In fact, we pride ourselves in not letting it get to us. "I'm a professional dammit, and telling the 3rd person this week that they've only got months to live doesn't keep me from doing my job professionally!"

We usually do a passable job of managing (suppressing) the emotional effects of our jobs. The first few dying or crying patients may have gotten to us, but we don't feel it anymore. We promise! Just another day at the hospital...

Many of the particular quirks of doctors and nurses are psychological defense mechanisms resulting from the mental trauma. Our experiences may turn us into jerks, but we'll turn patients with scary diagnoses into angelseither that or monsters.

Fear of Dying

Doctors and nurses cannot do our work if we're afraid, but it is anxiety-producing stuff we see every day. We are the ones that watch everyone suffer and die. We watch young and healthy people get awful diseases. We see miserable people that we just can't fix. We get the fact that everyone inevitably dies someday (and many deaths are not pretty) shoved in our face daily.

Watching strangers suffer and die actually isn't as hard as you'd think. The real mental anguish comes when we reflect that the same sort of thing will eventually happen to ourselves and the people we love dearly. Dr. D does a good job taking care of sick and dying kids, as long as he doesn't wonder if this might happen to Little D someday.

We need to find some way to think of you as different from us.
If you are totally different from us then whatever awful thing is happening you to won't necessarily happen to us.
I hate to admit it, but first we look for the bad in you. If you've made some shitty decisions in your life or you are rude or manipulative with us then we conclude you deserve it. "This sort of stuff happens to assholes like youKarma, bitch!"

But if we don't find some reason to hate you we conclude that you must be a saint. You are too good for this wicked world! This burden was laid on you because only a truly superb human being like you could handle it.

"Look, we really need you to do this for us. You don't mind, do you dear?"
We'd rather admit you are better than us than to admit you're just like us.
We feel safe from the fear of ending up in your shoes as long as you are absolutely different from us. "That sort of terrible thing happens to assholes and angels but not normal dudes like me!"

The Complications Of Nice Patient Syndrome

There are plenty of advantages to Nice Patient Syndrome. If you are going to have an awful disease it sometimes isn't so bad to be surrounded by healthcare workers who think that they aren't worthy to be in the same room as you. Trust me, you've got it much better than the ones we conclude are assholes! We'll bend over backwards for you. You can and should milk this!

There are, however, disadvantages to being though of as the nicest patient.
  • You aren't a real person to us. Your goodness we keep fawning over is a creation of our own mind.
  • We tend to be paternalistic with "Nice Patient Syndrome" patients. We don't want to bother your pretty little head with the dirty details of your disease, so we just make the decisions for you.
  • We expect you to handle pain bravely. All that goodness makes you more resistant to pain than mere mortals! We rave about your fortitude in the face of pain, and you want to keep our respect so you won't tell us how much you're hurting.
  • When we do treat your pain we will knock your ass out! We adore you so much that if you do mention you're hurting we might Michael Jackson you by accident.
  • You actually aren't what we imagine you are. We sometimes send people to meet their maker convinced they have far purer souls than they actually do. You are yourselfthe good and the bad. Don't buy into our delusion!

How To Handle Your Sainthood

Rule #1: Don't try and convince us that you are a normal person. Sure, you are just trying to be humble, but insisting you have flaws is actually very threatening to us. If you are just like me then whatever scary thing that is happening to you could just as easily happen to me.

"I think the world of you Mr. Smith. That's how I keep from wetting my pants when I read your chart."

You can't change us. We are damaged goods.
We are frightened by your suffering and Nice Patient Syndrome is a deeply-rooted defense mechanism that isn't going away.
If you try too hard to prove you have faults you might suddenly get labeled the asshole patient that deserves this and can't die soon enough.

Rule #2: Accept your sainthood! Learn use your new-found powers:

  • Speak clearly and directly. Your words carry a lot of weight with us, but you have to sometimes speak forcefully to overcome the narrative running in our heads of whatever we expect an angelic person would say.
  • Kindly but firmly demand control of your care. This is your disease, your pain, your death! Don't let your doctors and nurses take over just because they adore you.
  • Defend your fellow patients. Just like you aren't the angel we think you are, the asshole patients aren't half as bad as we think they are. "Difficult patients" are the victims of the same splitting defense mechanism that created "nice patients" like you. Don't try to convince your MD or RN your fellow patient isn't that badit won't work. Just remind us to show more kindness to the assholes. We'll do it if an angelic patient like you asks us.
  • Ask for lots of extra ice cream. We'll keep bringing it till you get a stomach ache!

Dr. D loves to read your thoughts in the comments.

A lot of you who read this blog have some really scary diseases:
-Have you ever been on the receiving end of Nice Patient Syndrome?
-How did you handle it?

Healthcare Peeps:
-What is your experience with Nice Patient Syndrome?
-Do you agree with Dr. D's theory of the condition?

Mar 21, 2011

A Doctor's Life

You're probably wondering where the long, brilliant, and eye-opening post for this week is?

Well, this week Dr. D worked 72 hours in the ER. I realize for some docs this is a light week, but as someone who doesn't actually like medicine this kind of week kicks my ass. I only saw my son awake once this whole week.

Ah, the glamorous life of an MD!

But enough bitching by Dr. D... I have a great post I'm preparing for you. I want to take the time to write something brilliant rather than giving you a crappy rough draft.

Stay tuned!

Mar 11, 2011

Doctor D Crossed The Line!

Doctor D has been blogging about the Doctor-Patient relationship for a while now. It’s sort of the thing I’m known for. I’ve usually been on the doctor side of this equation. Most of my blogging, however, is to help patients figure out the weird world of medicine.

Well, guess what? Doctor D recently found himself on the patient side of a nasty injury!

Even as Doctor D looked down and realized his leg wasn’t supposed to be that shape he said to himself,
“Self, take mental notes! The readers of Doctor D’s Clinic of Doctor-Patient Relational Awesomeness will want to know about this."

Here is what Doctor D discovered when he became Patient D:

1) Doctor D Is Mostly Right

Any reader of this knows that Dr. D’s insight is typically brilliant and totally useful. I found myself actually looking up posts I had written for the solid and useful advice.

But even D has a lot to learn, so from here on I shall delve into the dark secrets I could only discover when crossing the line to the patient side!

2) Being The Patient Is The Hardest Job In Medicine

We doctors think we have difficult work. We have to slave our asses off for years in school. We are expected to be perfect and heroic while working with huge uncertainty. We try to protect your health, comfort, and life, while you patients just lay back and get taken care of!

Lying here isn't as relaxing as overworked docs think it is.

Just a few days as a hospital patient cleared my mind of any misconceptions. Abject helplessness combined with severe pain trumps everything. And helplessness is far worse than pain. Dr. D had never done anything as a doctor that caused more stress than allowing myself to be put to sleep for a major operation with a surgeon I had only spoken to for 30 seconds.

3) There Is Much More To Pain Than A Number

Doctor D has written a lot on pain scoring, so I attempted to rate my own pain as a matter of curiosity. I have a good imagination for what 10 out of 10 pain would feel like, so I gave the feeling of multiple shattered bones crunching whenever my leg moved a 7, which made it the most intense pain I’ve ever felt, but I could totally handle the excruciating acute pain.

The real surprise was realizing that duration of pain was far worse than intensity. I had a throbbing pain during my recovery that I could rate as a 4 if I’m generous, but it lasted for weeks and nearly drove me insane. Low-intensity pain that won't leave can make a person much more miserable than 10 out of 10.

4) Narcotics suck

I’ve seen a lot of nice people get addicted to opiate pain medicines. So Doctor D was the dude in the ER with a bone sticking out of his leg begging not to be given morphine. When they finally convinced me to take the narcotics I was please to discover I didn’t get any high. But what I did discover is that they made me miserable in other ways. I was groggy, nauseated, itchy, constipated, and mushy-brained whenever I had to use them.

Their efficacy varies drastically from person to person. I can say with certainty that a 400 mg Ibuprofen was significantly better for pain for me than a 10 mg Percocet, but since my Ortho wouldn’t let me use ibuprofen I was stuck with narcotics. So I then had to deal with the suspicious look when I told the doc I needed more because I had run out.

I am so happy to be off those things! As a physician, it was a bit eye opening to experience how inconsistent and imperfect our best pain medicines are. Managing the pain of a fellow human being is about as frustrating a situation as an MD can experience. I doubt my prescribing patterns will change much, but I do have a deeper appreciation for how hard it is to correctly wield the double-edged sword of pain medicines.

5) Being Disabled Can Really Crush An Ego

Regular visitors to The Clinic of Doctor-Patient Relational Awesomeness are likely aware that Doctor D has a very healthy self-esteem. 3 weeks of lying on my back absolutely helpless and unable to do anything had me at the lowest place I’ve every been. One night I—a generally tough dude—cried myself to sleep. I’m up and moving better now, but I will likely have a limp the rest of my life. My whole life I’ve been able to do everything physical I wanted to do. Now I’m one of the broken people. It’s going to take some getting used to.

I know as physician I often see people with broken and damaged bodies. It kind of annoyed me when people whined about it. “Look, we can’t fix everything, so be a grown up, get over yourself, and quit complaining!” It’s easy to feel this way when you aren’t the one with the disability. I’ve given myself that same pep talk a lot in the last two months—It doesn't work as well when I’m the one with the gimp leg. A lot of my patients have far worse problems than my leg ever was. I’m manning up to fact that my leg’s gonna hurt for decades, but I think I’ll be much more patient towards patients with severe disabilities in the future.

You can't say you wouldn't complain about it if you've never been thereit's a good thing for docs to keep in mind.

6) There Isn’t A "Sort Of Person" These Things Happen To.

Okay, I have to admit something a bit embarrassing here: We doctors sometimes think of our patients as a completely alien form of human life. It isn’t intentional. We wouldn’t even admit it out loud. It’s a weird psychological quirk that happens like a reflex.

Doctor’s see so much suffering and misery on a daily basis, and we just can’t spend all our time worrying if it will happen to us too. So we develop this mental trick: "These things won’t happen to me, because I’m not that sort of person." What sort of person? Well, the sort of person who ends up the patient with a painful or horrible condition, of course!

Unfortunately, psychological defense mechanisms are useless when the cold, harsh laws of physics apply pressure to human bones. This shit happens to everybody—even doctors. No one is the sort of person that has a debilitating injury, until it happens.

7) Some Doctors Just Can’t Be Helped

Doctor D has spent a lot of time educating you on how to deal with difficult doctors. One of the worse maladies plaguing the medical field is piss-poor communication, and Dr. D’s orthopedist has about the communication skills of a mentally-retarded clam.

There's a lot that patients can do to improve their communication with difficult doctors. I had a lot of questions, and I found myself going and reading my own posts for advice on how to get answers out of a doc with weak bedside manner.

In the end I just gave up. This dude just couldn’t communicate like a normal human being with a patient (even a patient who had an MD). I hear he’s an excellent surgeon and the fact that my leg got put back together is proof of this, but his ability to converse was just dismal.

"I'm sorry, but I don't consider speaking with you to be part of my job description."

When faced with a doctor who simply will not or cannot communicate a patient has two options: Leave or trust blindly.

Dr. D had a FUBAR leg, there was only one Orthopedist available at 1:00 am, and the ER doc said this dude was a good surgeon. So I trusted him even though he seemed mentally incapable of explaining the operation he was going to do. The gamble paid off and the leg is improving, but generally I would have to advise that you hit the road when paired with doctors incapable of communicating—especially if your doctor will need to manage your problem longer than a 2 hour surgery.

Okay, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it!

Doctor D is back to limping around the exam room with patients, and so Doctor D’s Internet Clinic of Doctor-Patient Relational Awesomeness is back too. Send in those questions and I shall keep dropping knowledge on you!

What do you think?

Any of you medical folks have similar experiences and want to add some points?

Any of you with more experience as patients wish Dr. D had picked up more from his time on your side? If so, what did I miss?

Doctor D always loves to hear your thoughts in the comments!

Mar 1, 2011

Is It March Already?

How did it get to be March so quickly? Apparently, in his hiatus post Dr. D said he'd be back before the end of February. Oops!

But wait! I have an excuse:
During his hiatus Doctor D found himself on the other side of the exam room. Yes, D managed to destroy most of the bones in his leg and became an orthopedic patient!

I'll have a full report for you soon, but for now I can tell you that Dr. D's skeleton has been reinforced with Titanium and he is considering changing careers to become a bionic superhero.
Never fear, readers! Doctor D didn't forget his Clinic of Doctor-Patient Relational Awesomeness! So be mellow and keep the questions coming!

I'll have an awesome post for you to read by this time next week, and Tracy will make sure I keep my word!