Patients who want to make you retire, and how to cope


I was at a meeting in Orlando, sitting in the front row. The speaker was a former Disney executive who was telling us how to improve our offices. He kept walking very close to the edge of the stage – so close I was worried he might step off with the Klieg lights in his eyes. Then he got to the heart of his message, telling us that we need to make each patient encounter a marvelous experience, and how he and his staff had done so for millions of mouseketeers. “You need to make each customer feel special,” he said. He went on with saccharine examples of staff going above and beyond – for example, replacing toddlers’ dropped ice creams before they could cry.

That hit my trigger. From that point on, I was almost hoping he would fall off the stage.

Of course, there is a story behind my reaction.

Dr. Brett M. Coldiron, a dermatologist and Mohs surgeon in Cincinnati.

Dr. Brett M. Coldiron

One sunny day, while I was sitting at the most cluttered desk in the world, one of my staff came into my office to tell me a patient had called. The patient was very unhappy, I was told, and she planned to stink bomb me on social media. Concerned, I pulled the patient’s before-and-after photos. It looked as though she had a great result from her treatment, so I was perplexed. I phoned the patient, but she refused to tell me why she was unhappy. “I’m very unhappy, and I’m going to punish you,” she said. I urged her to come to the office and see me, at her convenience.

When we spoke face-to-face, I examined her nose and took a picture. I explained that her cancer was cured; her result was beautiful, the site was almost imperceptible. I added that I thought the appearance would continue to improve with time.

My patient refused to look at me, and refused to look at the site in the mirror. She shoved the preop defect photo away without giving it a glance. Instead, she told me how inconvenient it was for her to have had a skin cancer at all. Traffic had been terrible coming into the office on the morning of the procedure. There had been a 45-minute backup on the bridge on her way home. Her ex-husband had refused to help with her wound care. She continued in a similar vein for 15 minutes as I waited for her to accuse me of my transgressions. She concluded with a scowl and a whimper, “You just didn’t make me feel special.”

Everyone has difficult patients, and everyone has bad days, but I can’t recall ever being ambushed quite so adroitly in my 30 years of practice. I recognized my patient was being passive-aggressive and was playing a social media–augmented game of “Now I’ve got you, you S.O.B,” right out of Eric Berne’s book “Games People Play.” I’d say that this book should still be required reading for dealing with difficult patients.

There are ways to defuse such patients. One of the best is to slow things down and spread them around. The wider the array of interactions with people (the medical assistant, the nurse, the fellow, the Mohs surgeon, maybe the plastic surgeon), the more times the patient has to vent and the anger is defused across many targets. This also speaks to the value of requiring a preoperative consultation days before the procedure As I thought about this patient, I recalled that, because of the distance she was traveling, I had not done so.

I looked my patient in the eye and told her I was sorry she was unhappy. I told her I would be glad to see her again. I told her I realized how far she was driving and thought the traffic would not be a problem this early in the afternoon. I thanked her and showed her to the door. She stalked out of the office.

Technically and emotionally difficult patients are sometimes referred to you. They are patients who you might prefer not to take on but you do because, as a specialist, you may be at the end of the referral pipeline. Sometimes you can win the day, striking up a friendship or jollying them past their resentment at the world.

And there are times when, as a physician and healer, you must recognize that patient criticism cannot be taken personally. The third law of surviving internship from Samuel Shem’s book “The House of God” is germane here. Remember, “the patient is the one with the disease.” And sometimes the disease is complicated by the patient’s emotional baggage. This is one of the reasons social media ratings can be so unfair. We have to realize that we are all going to be trashed unfairly at some point, and probably sued unfairly as well. As a malpractice attorney told me once, “You doctors shouldn’t take this so personally; it’s just business.”

And my patient? Despite my admonishments to you not to take things personally, I did feel bad for a week or so after our encounter. I did mail her a copy of her pre- and postoperative photographs. I have not seen her again. I did not look to see whether she burned me online.

But, by gosh, I’d really like to lock that Disney executive in a room with her for five minutes.

Dr. Coldiron is in private practice but maintains a clinical assistant professorship at the University of Cincinnati. He cares for patients, teaches medical students and residents, and has several active clinical research projects. Dr. Coldiron is the author of more than 80 scientific letters, papers, and book chapters, and he speaks frequently on a variety of topics. He is a past president of the American Academy of Dermatology. Write to him at [email protected].


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