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What doctors say when patients are awake

By now you’ve probably read Anesthesiologist trashes sedated patient — and it ends up costing her or seen it mentioned somewhere. I won’t rehash the specifics. You can hear audio clips of what the doctors said while their patient was anesthetized and a cell phone audio recorder captured everything.  There have been a variety of reactions from outrage to “this happens all the time” (not mutually exclusive perspectives). I would like to add a few thoughts to the mix and raise some questions:

1. What are we to make of doctors venting rage towards patients when they think they are out of earshot or unconscious?  What are the triggers?  Here are several:

a) Judgmentalism:  Rather than seeing patients as struggling with life long challenges, phobias and neurosis (all characteristics health care providers amply share), they are judged for their personal qualities. In the audio, the patient is called a “retard” for fearing insertion of an IV into his arm.

b) Lack of engagement: Engaging with other people means interacting with them as fellow human beings, without pretention, or judgment, and as an equal.  It does not mean that the doctor forgets that s/he is there to help and to heal.  It is unselfconscious. When we engage we come to know each person as an individual and they come to know us as an individual.  It is not something that takes more or less time than non-engaged interaction. It’s just a different way of relating to people.

c) Lack of boundary clarity: Boundary clarity gives us the perspective to know how to set limits in interactions without cause for offending other people.  It’s knowing what’s you and what’s the other person. When a resident says to me “I couldn’t get him to stop talking. I just couldn’t get out of that room” they are exhibiting a lack of boundary clarity. They could extract themselves saying “Mr. Jones, I’m sorry to interrupt you. But I have another patient to see.” Actually, it’s not quite that straightforward, which is why they are at a loss. Cutting off an encounter abruptly without preparing for it would not serve the patient well.   Ideally, from the start of the visit when a doctor first perceives that their patient is talkative to a point that could undermine care, they should alert him to the parameters of the visit: “Mr. Jones, unfortunately the schedulers only gave you 15 minutes of my time, so I want to be sure we cover everything that’s important to you.” If there is more to cover when time is up, ideally the most critical issues will have taken priority and the others can be scheduled into another visit, or phone call, or referral.

Not being judgmental, engaging with others and being clear about boundaries adds up to respect.  These three elements are not always easy to come by though.  The first — being judgmental — is deeply ingrained in many people. It’s possible to get past it, but that requires considerable self-reflection.  The second, interpersonal engagement, is especially uncommon. It tends to occur when people let their guard down. When two people who don’t know each other get stuck in an elevator, they are primed to engage. It doesn’t matter if one is a CEO and the other a janitor. If enough time passes, they are like miners stuck underground. They share a common humanity.  In health care, patients enter feeling vulnerable and are open to engagement. Their doctors may not be inclined to engage or simply don’t know how to. Finally, the third — boundary clarify — is also quite rare.  In fact, not knowing how to set boundaries is likely a prime reason why clinicians don’t engage in the first place. If you don’t reveal who you are, then the need to set boundaries doesn’t arise. Instead interactions are formalized. They pass for respectful. The doctor who does not engage can appear engaged and perform in a manner that will leave most patients feeling like they got good service.  But something is missing that neither can likely quite put their thumb on. The patient has received a service, but not a healing encounter. The clinician has delivered a service but the interaction is not nourishing and over time many such interactions lead to burnout.

The audio recording reveals rage, scorn, and repulsion. The medical team talks about how so many patients are like the one on the table. What stands out is their inability to manage boundaries.  They talk about the lengths they go to get away from them by, for instance, pretending that they got a page.  Had the patient never heard the audio, the comments would not have likely caused any direct harm….except for one thing: the rage turned into malice. The doctor put a false diagnosis in the chart, noting that the patient had hemorrhoids. That was the indisputable harm, and reflects what happens when providers are judgmental, do not engage, are unclear about boundaries, and cannot control the negative emotions that follow.