Under My Skin

Retail neurosis


When I stopped by last August to pick up new eyeglass lenses, Harold the optician sat alone in his shop.

Dr. Alan Rockoff, a dermatologist in Brookline, Mass.

Dr. Alan Rockoff

“Business slow in the summer?” I asked.

Harold looked morose. “I knew it would be like this when I bought the business,” he said. “We’re open Saturdays, but summers I close at 2. Everybody’s at the Cape.”

Working in retail makes people more neurotic than necessary. I should know. I’ve been in retail for 40 years.

My patient Myrtle once explained to me how retail induces neurosis by deforming incentives. Myrtle used to work in management at a big department store. (Older readers may recall going to stores in buildings to buy things. The same readers may recall newspapers.)

“The month between Thanksgiving and Christmas makes or breaks the whole year,” Myrtle said. “If you do worse than last year, you feel bad. But if you do better than last year you also feel bad, because you worry you won’t be able to top it next year.”

She paused. “I guess that’s not a very healthy way to live, is it?”

I was too polite to agree.

Early in my career I had few patients on my schedule, maybe five on a good day. Then three of them would cancel. That was the start of my retail neurosis. Of course, I was a solo practitioner who started my own practice. The likes of me will someday be found in a museum, stuffed and mounted, along with other extinct species, under the label Medicus Cutaneous Solipsisticus (North America c. 20th century).

Over time, I got busier and dropped each of my eleven part-time jobs. By now I’ve been busy for decades, even though I’ve never had much of a waiting list. Don’t know why that is, but it no longer matters.

Except it does, psychologically. You won’t find this code in the DSM, but my working definition for the malady I describe is as follows:

Retail Neurosis (billable ICD-10 code F48.8. Other unspecified nonpsychotic mental disorders, along with writer’s block and psychasthenia):

Definition: The unquenchable fear that even the tiniest break in an endless churn of patients means that all patients will disappear later this afternoon, reverting the practice to the empty, formless void from whence it came. Other than retirement, there is no treatment for this disorder. And maybe not then either.

You might think to classify Retail Neurosis under Financial Insecurity, but that disorder has a different code. (F40.248, Fear of Failing, Life-Circumstance Problem). After all, a single well-remunerated patient (53 actinic keratoses!) can outreimburse half a dozen others with only E/M codes and big deductibles. Treat one of the former, take the rest of the hour off, and you’re financially just as well off, or even better. Yes?

No. Taking the rest of the hour off leaves you with too much time to ponder what every retailer knows: Each idle minute is another lost chance to make another sale and generate revenue. That minute (and revenue) can never be retrieved. Never!

As Myrtle would say, “Not a very healthy way to live, is it?”

Maybe not, but here as elsewhere, knowing something and fixing it are different things. Besides, brisk retail business brings a buzz, along with a sense of mastery and accomplishment, which is pleasantly addictive. Until it isn’t.

New generations of physicians and other medical providers will work in different settings than mine; they will be wage-earners in large organizations. These conglomerations bring their own neurosis-inducing incentives. Their managers measure providers’ productivity in various deforming and crazy-making ways. (See RVU-penia, ICD-10 M26.56: “Nonworking side interference.” This is actually a dental code that refers to jaw position, but billing demands creativity.) Practitioner anxieties will center on being docked for not generating enough relative value units or for failure to bundle enough comorbidities for maximizing capitation payments (e.g., Plaque Psoriasis plus Morbid Obesity plus Writer’s Block). But the youngsters will learn to get along. They’ll have to.

“Taking any time off this summer?” I asked my optician Harold.

“My wife and daughter are going out to Michigan in mid-August,” he said.

“Aren’t you going with them?”

“I can’t swing it that week,” he said. “By then, people are coming back to town, getting their kids ready for school. If I go away, I would miss some customers.”

Harold, you are my kind of guy!

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. His second book, “Act Like a Doctor, Think Like a Patient,” is available at amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com. Write to him at [email protected].

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