Bad bedside manner

Gerry Phelan
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I guess it’s just one of those things that happens as we get older — we have to visit the doctor more, and spend way too much time talking about ailments rather than sports, money or sex.  

I used to look at the front page of the newspaper first; these days, it’s the death notices. What’s worse is seeing a lot of people you know on that page, or people in your own age bracket.

It’s to be expected as the body wears out. Sometimes the general practitioner, more commonly known as the family doctor, needs to steer you toward some expert opinion, a specialist for a particular problem, which leads me to share my experience today.

Some of those docs could use a few lessons in customer service. Wait, I can hear it now. You are not a “customer,” you are a “patient.”

The doctor has studied medicine, interned and worked side by side with other experts in order to be able to figure out what’s wrong with you, how to make it better, and yes, sadly, at times to decide all that can be done has been done.

These are busy people with too many patients and not enough time to worry about the customer experience. Still, is a little respect and dignity too much to ask?

My specialist appointment was out of town.

“What is your problem?” the doctor asked.

“Well, it started about 10 years ago” I began. He cut me off.

“What is your problem today?” he said, obviously cutting to the chase.

“Well, as you can probably see in your file, about 10 years ago, I consulted a specialist in St. John’s about ...”

He looked up from the paper and with stern eyes and said again, “No. I asked what your problem is right now, today.”

I tried to explain to him that I had no “problem” today, that I had been on a waiting list for months to have this embarrassment of a conversation, and that the only way I could explain my problem was to reference what had brought me to an equally qualified (but much friendlier) specialist a decade before. He appeared frustrated with my answers, as if I was wasting his time.

Uncomfortable is putting it mildly as I followed his directions for an examination that might make the strongest of men cringe. I was relieved when it was over, but he wasn’t finished with me yet.

“I am now going to examine your prostate.”

Now most men will tell you that exam is something too many of us put off until we really have to, and having “enjoyed” it twice in the past year, I wasn’t fussy about third time lucky.

The doctor didn’t take kindly to my asking if it was really necessary.

“Are you refusing my test?” he asked. (I’d like to say barked, but I am trying to be kind.) Again, I tried to explain that my family doctor and another specialist had given me the exam within the past six months.

“So you are refusing my test. I will write that on your file.”

I gave in. It must have been the threat of something being written. The novelty of this prostate exam happening while I stood was a whole new experience I vowed I’d write a column about. Part of it you are reading now.

Soon it was back to the office chair to be told my diagnosis, that there was little he would recommend surgery-wise (thankfully) and I should return to see him in six months.

The visit had been humiliating and degrading. I was left to wonder if he was having a bad day or if this was his style. He now has one fewer patient to see in the future.

Through it all, I wondered if it was just me. Perhaps I’m so fortunate to have a friendly, compassionate and caring family doctor that I expected the same of the specialist I had travelled miles to see at my own expense.

I expect to be treated with respect. We all should. Or perhaps we’ve reached the point where even that is too much to ask.


Gerry Phelan is a journalist and former broadcaster.

He can be reached at

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Recent comments

  • Anna
    July 12, 2013 - 12:55

    last time I went to see a family doctor, she only stared at her computer screen and I finally had to say, you haven't looked at me once since you came in here, all this computer technology has taken away from patient care.

    July 12, 2013 - 11:27

    A friend of mine has a bad bed side manner treatment in hospital a few weeks ago. The so called specialist very loudly in a ward with all beds full, and all with visitors loudly announced his condition. When he objected and stated that a piece of machinery he required wasn't working the doctor loudly berated him, and asked what kind of welfare he was on. My father was treated the same way a few years ago when in hospital by a loud ignorant doctor, bed side manners, all manners with these specialists are gone. I also had similar experiences twice with an eye specialist, and won't go to him anymore. I just don't know where they get off treating people as though everyone is beneath them.