“So tell me, Kathy,” I asked as I walked in. “Is the wedding still on?”
“Yes!” she said.
I was kidding, of course. I wanted to defuse the tension every bride feels as her big day approaches. With her nuptials 2 months off, Kathy was here for an acne tune-up.
Good news: no new pimples. Though Kathy had stopped squeezing her old ones, their marks were fading slowly. Brides don’t want to depend on makeup or Photoshop.
Her current regimen was a topical antibiotic in the morning and a retinoid at night. The question was whether to add or change anything.
“Maybe we should consider adding an oral medicine to help speed healing?” I asked. Then I watched her eyes. Her frown gave me my answer.
“I’d prefer to avoid oral medications unless I absolutely need them,” Kathy said.
“No problem,” I said. “You’re doing well, and we still have 2 months for the marks you have to fade.” I arranged to see her again shortly before the wedding, for any last-minute adjustments.
Outside the exam room, I took my student aside. “That’s how you negotiate,” I told her.
“Some young women approach their weddings in a kind of panic. They want to do whatever it takes to speed healing. If Kathy had felt that way, and I told her things were fine as they were, she would have been upset. ‘Isn’t there something else we can do, maybe something to take by mouth?’ she’d have asked.
“Instead, Kathy felt the opposite,” I told my student. “When patients have a specific problem, you can make a shrewd guess about how aggressive they want to be in addressing it. But you can’t be sure. That means watching their eyes and body language when making suggestions.
“Of course, not every medical condition is negotiable. Sometimes, the matter is so urgent or dire that there really is only one thing to do. Then you have to be more direct. But many situations are not so clear cut. You and the patient will have choices. Which is best may depend less on the medical condition than on the patient’s mindset and circumstances.
“Your job is to know the options, watch their eyes, and negotiate,” I said.
My student nodded, probably noticing that this is not standard clinical advice. In school, they teach you to make the right diagnosis and prescribe the treatment of choice. Anything else would be substandard care, a dereliction of professional duty.
Nowadays, teachers – and insurers – go in for algorithms, cookbook medicine. If the patient has this, do this. If that, do that. “How do you treat acne?” students often ask at the start of their rotation. “Can you give me a decision tree?”
These days more and more doctors spend their visit time clicking tablets or laptops. If the patient has acne, they are checking off vital data points like:
• Are there pimples, pustules, whiteheads, blackheads, cysts?
• How many of each?
• Where they are – face, chest, back?
This information is supposed to objectively describe and grade the patient’s acne. You click what is important: what you can count and measure.
Here is what electronic medical records do not have you click off:
• Is the patient getting married soon?
• Is she afraid of oral antibiotics because she’s heard they wreck your immune system and make you sick?
• Have her friends recommended an acne cream they are sure is the best thing since sliced tretinoin?
They don’t make boxes for what goes on inside people’s brains. You can’t count or measure that, and if you can’t count it, it doesn’t count.
So doctors click what they tell us to. As we click the keyboard, we are not looking at the patient’s face. So we don’t know whether the patient is buying what we have to offer.
More medical treatment than we care to admit is – or should be – a process of negotiation. Negotiating means looking people in the eye and hearing what they say and the way they say it. That way you know not only what they have, but what they want. In Kathy’s case, that would be a wedding to remember.
As she proceeds in her career, my student may do more than counting pimples and grading acne. At any rate, I hope so.
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.