A patient swore at me the other day. Not as in “she used a curse word.” As in she spewed fury, spitting out a vulgar, adverbial word before “... terrible doctor” while jabbing her finger toward me. In my 15 years of practice, I’d never had that happen before. Equally surprising, I was not surprised by her outburst. The level of incivility from patients is at an all-time high.
Her anger was misdirected. She wanted me to write a letter to her employer excusing her from getting a vaccine. It was neither indicated nor ethical for me to do so. I did my best to redirect her, but without success. As our chief of service, I often help with service concerns and am happy to see patients who want another opinion or want to speak with the department head (aka, “the manager”). Usually I can help. Lately, it’s become harder.
Not only are such rude incidents more frequent, but they are also more dramatic and inappropriate. For example, I cannot imagine writing a complaint against a doctor stating that she must be a foreign medical grad (as it happens, she’s Ivy League-trained) or demanding money back when a biopsy result turned out to be benign, or threatening to report a doctor to the medical board because he failed to schedule a follow-up appointment (that doctor had been retired for months). Patients have hung up on our staff mid-sentence and slammed a clinic door when they left in a huff. Why are so many previously sensible people throwing childlike tantrums?
It’s the same phenomenon happening to our fellow service agents across all industries. The Federal Aviation Administration’s graph of unruly passenger incidents is a flat line from 1995 to 2019, then it goes straight vertical. A recent survey showed that Americans’ sense of civility is low and worse, that people’s expectations that civility will improve is going down. It’s palpable. Last month, I witnessed a man and woman screaming at each other over Christmas lights in a busy store. An army of aproned walkie-talkie staff surrounded them and escorted them out – their coordination and efficiency clearly indicated they’d done this before. Customers everywhere are mad, frustrated, disenfranchised. Lately, a lot of things just are not working out for them. Supplies are out. Kids are sent home from school. No elective surgery appointments are available. The insta-gratification they’ve grown accustomed to from Amazon and DoorDash is colliding with the reality that not everything works that way.
The word “patient’’ you’ll recall comes from the Latin “patior,” meaning to suffer or bear. With virus variants raging, inflation growing, and call center wait times approaching infinity, many of our patients, it seems, cannot bear any more. I’m confident this situation will improve and our patients will be more reasonable in their expectations, but I am afraid that, in the end, we’ll have lost some decorum and dignity that we may never find again in medicine.
For my potty-mouthed patient, I made an excuse to leave the room to get my dermatoscope and walked out. It gave her time to calm down. I returned in a few minutes to do a skin exam. As I was wrapping up, I advised her that she cannot raise her voice or use offensive language and that she should know that I and everyone in our office cares about her and wants to help. She did apologize for her behavior, but then had to add that, if I really cared, I’d write the letter for her.
I guess the customer is not always right.
Dr. Benabio is director of Healthcare Transformation and chief of dermatology at Kaiser Permanente San Diego. The opinions expressed in this column are his own and do not represent those of Kaiser Permanente. Dr. Benabio ison Twitter. Write to him at