Good Doc, Bad Doc

One day not long ago, I had to go to the dentist. Don't worry, I'm not going to give you any gruesome details, but I will say my tooth started to hurt that evening. So I got a message to the doctor-on-call to ask what to do.

The doctor, a woman from the practice, called me back after about ten minutes. She sounded distant and a little annoyed, as if I'd called during a particularly exciting rerun of Game of Thrones, and she told me in a bored tone to take another kind of analgesic in addition to the Advil I was taking already. Then she hung up.

Because what she recommended was something you could get over the counter and wasn't very strong, I was left feeling uncertain and confused. I made another phone call, this time to another doctor from the same practice.

This doctor picked up the phone immediately, said hello and asked how I was doing. He seemed genuinely concerned that I was in pain, asked me what I'd already taken and how much. Then, to my complete surprise, he told me to take the exact same analgesic the other doctor had told me to take!

I was surprised, and told him so. How can an ordinary pain killer help with this level of discomfort? I asked him.

"This medication, when combined with what you're already taking, is as powerful as an opioid but without any of the side-effects and complications," he explained. Then he said, "If you don't feel better within the next hour, please call me again."

I'm happy to report that the doctors' advice worked, and I was soon pain-free. But the experience got me thinking. What is it that makes a good doctor good and a not-so-good doctor—well, not so good?

It's easy to say that the good doc just had a nicer bedside manner. No big deal. It's all the same, just with different packaging. After all, the long and short of it is that both doctors advised the exact same thing, and if I'd taken the first doctor's advice, I'd have been fine.

But the fact is that I didn't take the first doctor's advice. And it's not just that the good doc was being "nice." It's much more than that.

First, the good doc started by asking me how I was doing. He set up the conversation in a caring way that opened the door for me to talk. Then he asked me questions. Several, in fact. He encouraged me to explain my symptoms and what I'd taken. Third, and perhaps most important, he didn't just tell me what to do—he listened to my concerns and took my question seriously, explaining the medical reason that the analgesic would work, and why it was better than a common alternative medication. Finally, he told me to call back if I wasn't feeling better, which left the door open for more communication.

In short, he treated me like an intelligent, reasonable person with legitimate concerns and opinions. He spoke to me as an equal, not as an all-knowing doctor instructing a child. He took the time to make sure I was comfortable with his suggestion. He didn't get annoyed because the conversation was taking too long or because I was questioning his advice.

In doing all these things, he involved me in my treatment—and he showed that he cared.

So, the million-dollar question is: how do we train our doctors to be good docs? That, I'm afraid, will have to wait until another blog.

Meanwhile, here's to the good docs of the world! May they be fruitful and multiply.

Roberta Eve Tovey