10 things doctors should never say

By Jonathan Ford Hughes, for MDLinx
Published April 24, 2019

Key Takeaways

Communication remains at the core of what doctors do. Talking to patients and colleagues, especially when dealing with bad news, takes a deft, nearly surgical touch. And sometimes, under the stress of a long day in the hospital or your practice, communication can break down.

Spend some time reviewing these 10 phrases a doctor should never say and ask yourself: “Have I ever said that to a patient or a colleague?”

“Let me Google that.”

A Google Images search comes in quite handy from time to time, especially when attempting to identify a rash of unknown origin. However, you might want to do this discreetly. Though it’s a perfectly legitimate tactic, it may make a patient doubt your abilities. Perhaps you should step outside the room if you need to do some quick sleuthing on your tablet.

“Did you read that on WebMD?”

It’s aggravating to deal with know-it-all patients who think they can diagnose themselves. And yes, WebMD has probably done more to convince people that they’re dying than any other source of information. But look at the bright side: Patients who research their symptoms are at least interested in their health and wellbeing. They might even listen to you.

“I’ll be back.”

Will you, though? This is OK to say if you’re the Terminator, but doctors, take warning. Spend enough time in any hospital ward and you’ll see more than a few harried doctors hustling from room-to-room. Sometimes walking into a room packed with a patient’s family can feel a bit like stepping into an ambush. You might not have time for extensive questions if you have a full roster of patients. Just be conscious of the fact that saying you’ll be back when you know that you’re time-starved sounds an awful lot like a broken promise.

*Starts telemedicine conference* “I have some bad news.”

The capabilities of telemedicine are expanding. This will be especially beneficial for rural, isolated populations. But is a video connection the best way to tell a patient they’re dying? At least one incident has grabbed national headlines. You may someday have to deliver bad news remotely—one can imagine circumstances in which it may be the only way to inform a patient—but for the time being it’s best to do it in person.

“Dr. Jones is a real moron.”

Careful what you say about other physicians—especially in front of nurses, PAs, support staff, and patients. Think about how much you know about all of your colleagues’ personal lives and shortcomings. Word travels fast, doesn’t it? The last thing you want to do is tear another colleague down. It will come back to you, and it will hurt you.

“It’s (insert disease here). I’ll write you a script.”

“What disease do I have? How did I get it? Should I get my will together?” You may know that Schamberg’s disease isn’t a big deal, but it may sound pretty terrifying to a patient. Taking some time to explain what it is, how it happened, and why you’re taking the course of action will go a long way toward putting a patient at ease. This is an obvious move for major diseases, but it sometimes gets overlooked for minor ones. Just remember that the patient has no sense for severity. Even if the answer to any of these questions is, “We don’t know, the research just hasn’t caught up,” that’s better than saying nothing.

“This new crop of doctors just doesn’t get it.”

Millennial and Generation Z doctors are different, but they’re still doctors and they still want to do what’s best for the patient. They also need your help. Instead of tearing them down, mentor them up. There likely was a doctor somewhere in your past who helped you along. Besides, it’s probably best to make friends now. There’s a good shot you’ll end up working for one someday.

“Want to see my new car?”

First, let’s get this straight: You deserve every penny (and probably more) that you make. But health care continues to get more expensive, and there are people out there who often face difficult decisions about paying for the care they need. With that in mind, you may want to be mindful about making small talk about your new Tesla, trip to Tahiti, or your daughter’s horse.

“Sure, I’ll cancel my vacation.”

Don’t do it, doctor. You likely need to rest up. If you’re not sure, see if you have any of these clinical signs that you need a vacation. Take that time off and avoid burnout. You’ve earned it. Let the CMO bring in a locum if they need to.

“How about that President Trump?”

Whether you love him or hate him, it’s probably best not to bring up the “T” word with patients. Think back to last Thanksgiving and how well the tableside political discussion went. Besides, it’s probably best to keep patients’ resting heart rates close to normal.

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