A 64-year-old White woman with very few medical problems complains of bug bites. She had seen no bugs and had no visible bites. There is no rash. “So what bit me?” she asked, pulling her mask down for emphasis. How should I know? I thought, but didn’t say. She and I have been through this many times.
Before I could respond, she filled the pause with her usual complaints including how hard it is to get an appointment with me and how every appointment with me is a waste of her time. Ignoring the contradistinction of her charges, I took some satisfaction realizing she has just given me a topic to write about: The hateful patient.
They are frustrating, troublesome, rude, sometimes racist, misogynistic, depressing, hopeless, and disheartening. They call you, email you, and come to see you just to annoy you (so it seems). And they’re everywhere. According to one study, nearly one in six are “difficult patients.” It feels like more lately because the vaccine has brought haters back into clinic, just to get us.
But hateful patients aren’t new. In 1978,, a Harvard psychiatrist, wrote a now-classic New England Journal of Medicine about them called: Taking Care of the Hateful Patient. Even Osler, back in 1889, covered these patients in his lecture to University of Pennsylvania students, advising us to “deal gently with this deliciously credulous old human nature in which we work ... restrain your indignation.” But like much of Osler’s advice, it is easier said than done.
Dr. Groves is more helpful, and presents a model to understand them. Difficult patients, as we’d now call them, fall into four stereotypes: dependent clingers, entitled demanders, manipulative help-rejectors, and self-destructive deniers. It’s Dr. Groves’s bottom line I found insightful. He says that, when patients create negative feelings in us, we’re more likely to make errors. He then gives sound advice: Set firm boundaries and learn to counter the countertransference these patients provoke. Don’t disavow or discharge, Dr. Groves advises, redirect these emotions to motivate you to dig deeper. There you’ll find clinical data that will facilitate understanding and enable better patient management. Yes, easier said.
In addition to Dr. Groves’s analysis of how we harm these patients, I’d add that these disagreeable, malingering patients also harm us doctors. The hangover from a difficult patient encounter can linger for several appointments later or, worse, carryover to home. And now with patient emails proliferating, demanding patients behave as if we have an inexhaustible ability to engage them. We don’t. Many physicians are struggling to care at all; their low empathy battery warnings are blinking red, less than 1% remaining.
What is toxic to us doctors is the maelstrom of cognitive dissonance these patients create in us. Have you ever felt relief to learn a difficult patient has “finally” died? How could we think such a thing?! Didn’t we choose medicine instead of Wall Street because we care about people? But manipulative patients can make us care less. We even use secret language with each other to protect ourselves from them, those GOMERs (get out of my emergency room), bouncebacks, patients with, and those ornery FTDs (failure to die). Save yourself, we say to each other, this patient will kill you.
Caring for my somatizing 64-year-old patient has been difficult, but writing this has helped me reframe our interaction. Unsurprisingly, at the end of her failed visit she asked when she could see me again. “I need to schedule now because I have to find a neighbor to watch my dogs. It takes two buses to come here and I can’t take them with me.” Ah, there’s the clinical data Dr. Groves said I’d find – she’s not here to hurt me, she’s here because I’m all she’s got. At least for this difficult patient, I have a plan. At the bottom of my note I type “RTC 3 mo.”
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 is @Dermdoc on Twitter. Write to him at email@example.com.