Under My Skin

Send all my records


 

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They put Bill’s chart on my desk, with a cover sheet. “I authorize you to send all my medical records,” it read, over his signature. The destination was a dermatologist across town.

I reviewed Bill’s record. His last visit was 6 months ago, just a skin check to mop up some solar keratoses. One of many such visits over 20 years. A basal cell on the shoulder 10 years ago. Nothing eventful.

“What happened?” I wondered, as I signed off on sending his chart. Had I missed a skin cancer?

That thought brought to mind Maxine. She, too, had been my patient for many years. Her niece still comes in.

Maxine had a history of sun damage, along with a few low-grade skin cancers. One day I biopsied a hand lesion. It was a squamous cell. I called her with the results and referred her to a surgeon. Nothing new or special, or so it seemed.

A few weeks later I got Maxine’s letter. “Send all my medical records.”

So I had not missed her squamous cell, but she still wanted out. How come?

Over the course of a clinical career, patients drop out. They move away, pass away, change insurance, retire to Florida or Arizona. Sometimes they come back, years later. They lost their job in L.A., or moved back to nurse a sick parent. Perhaps they got their old insurance back, or their new doctor stopped accepting the kind they had. It’s been 5 years, 10 years. You didn’t even notice they were gone.

The same thing happens of course in other aspects of life. People move in and out of our orbit: school chums, work mates, parents of kids who play with our kids, neighbors. They grow up, move away, get lost somehow. Unless they reappear, we often don’t realize they aren’t there anymore.

Most of the time there was no special event, no angry falling out. Lives just diverged. We lost whatever we had in common. Nothing personal.

But former acquaintances don’t generally send you a note officially severing relations, a letter notifying you to, “Forget about me. You won’t be seeing me again.”

If we got such a letter, we might actually be relieved. Chances are, though, that if we weren’t expecting it (or secretly wishing for it), we would wonder what it was about. Was there a quarrel we didn’t even know about?

Chances are we wouldn’t try too hard to find out what the problem was, though. Whatever we did manage to learn would probably be unpleasant and unfixable.

The same is true when patients ask us to send all their records. Most people stay, unless something propels them to move on. Absent a shift in geography or health insurance, whatever did overcome their inertia it is probably not something we want to know.

“This will happen to you,” I tell my students. “Count on it. Patients will ask for their records. They may send you a note of complaint. ‘You didn’t find the skin cancer on mother’s leg,’ they may say. Or else, ‘Your treatments were useless. I went to another doctor who actually knew what was wrong and gave me what I needed.’ ” Nowadays, people put such sentiments into unfavorable online reviews.

“When you get letters or read reviews like those,” I advise, “count to 10 before you respond. Then count to 10 again. Then don’t respond. I’ve tried doing it the other way and regretted it every time.

“Mostly, there’s no potential litigation involved,” I continue. “If there is a threatened suit, you’ll need an attorney to respond anyway. Otherwise, learn what you can from the patient’s disappointment, file the letter, note the review, send all the records, and move on.”

We doctors tend to be an ingratiating sort. Because we try to help people, we want them to like us. Many will, often to excess. But good as we ever get, try as hard as we can, not everybody will like us. That’s life, in and out of medical practice.

Rejection is never pleasant. Experience thickens the skin, but even then a signed request to “Send all my records” can sting. Even after all these years, it still does.

Dr. Rockoff practices dermatology in Brookline, Mass., and is a longtime contributor to Dermatology News. He serves on the clinical faculty at Tufts University, Boston, and has taught senior medical students and other trainees for 30 years.

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