What Doctors Wish Patients Knew About Being a Practicing Physician

Christine Lehmann, MA

July 21, 2022

Physicians are often frustrated because patients have no idea about the difficulties they face and the amount of behind-the-scenes work involved as part of their jobs. What would doctors like patients to understand about the practice of medicine today?

Medscape Medical News polled physicians on June 13 to find out the answer, and more than 200 in the US recently responded.

Here's what primary care doctors and specialists say they wish patients knew:

Patients Don’t See All That We Do

A family medicine doctor noted that patients are unaware that their face-to-face time with patients is only about one third of the work physicians do.

They are doing a half-dozen other things that may cause them to run late:

"We not only see patients in the office, but we also answer phone calls, speak with hospital physicians about admitted patients, review charts, fill prescriptions, meet with industry people, see walk-ins ... and there are many days that we don't even get to eat ... those are some of the many reasons why we are late to see patients," said an internist.

I have several thousand patients so when I am running late, it isn’t out of disrespect, it is because I am being pulled in multiple directions. Comment from a family physician.

“I am still helping someone else who needed more time while they are waiting and they would get the same amount of time if needed,” said a hematologist-oncologist.

“Emergencies of other patients may cause delays in your care. Think of yourself as the patient with the unplanned emergency,” said an emergency medicine doctor.

We Care About You

Physicians wanted patients to know how dedicated they are to helping them; even if the doctor may seem to be rushed, or doesn’t get to spend as much time with the patient as he or she would like.

“I care about every patient that I care for and I want to make the right diagnosis and prescribe the correct treatment,” said an emergency medicine physician.

A urologist commented, “The main reason that we chose medicine is to improve people’s lives. The respect, high income, and mental challenge are secondary. We sacrifice personal and family time for our patients on a daily basis.”

A dermatologist said, “We are in the profession of helping people. We have a duty to always act in your best interests. We are the only profession where that is an absolute. We want you to get well. We want you to understand what is happening with your body/mind. We care for you and we try very hard to be worthy of your respect.”

We’re Human, Too

A surgical oncologist wanted patients to know that physicians try their best, but they’re human and therefore imperfect.

Another surgeon said, “We’re capable of making mistakes from time to time. Medicine is not an exact science, and so each person will react differently to different therapies.”

An emergency medicine doctor commented, “We’re people too with feelings. We get hurt being yelled at, cussed at, manipulated, kicked, punched, etc.”

“Those who are truly sick or injured rarely act in this manner. Yet, it is the physician who is always at fault. It would be an extremely rare individual who has not made a human error at their job,” he said.

Family physicians wanted patients to know this:

“We’re human with all of the same family, life stresses and emotions outside of work as everyone else.”

“That I too am a person with a family of my own and occasionally, health problems. We also deserve vacations.”

We Have A Lot of Training

An emergency medicine physician wanted patients to know how much time and effort it takes to become a doctor.

An internist commented, “We went to school and studied a lot of things to get where we are. We have reasons for doing things that may not seem obvious. You can't become a doctor reading stuff on the internet.”

A pathologist said, “I’d like patients to understand the truly hard work and dedication required. For me, four years of medical school, four years of residency, and a year of fellowship. It took 9 years before I started practicing my specialties in anatomic and clinical pathology. And every day I prayed dear God, don’t let me make an error of judgement and hurt anyone.

“Fortunately, I did not, but I don’t think that matters to anyone, or that anyone cares. I would never make the same personal sacrifices that I did in hindsight.”

Christine Lehmann, MA, is a senior editor and writer for Medscape’s Business of Medicine based in the D.C. area. She has been published in WebMD News, Psychiatric News, and The Washington Post. Contact Christine at clehmann@medscape or via Twitter @writing_health.

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