10 Awkward Patient-Doctor Moments

Ryan Gray, MD
Ryan Gray, MD

Ryan Gray, MD, is a former Air Force Flight Surgeon. He is now helping premed students overcome obstacles on their journey to become physicians at the Medical School Headquarters.

When you become a doctor, it’s no secret that you will have to deal with people all day long. And, in the course of these many human interactions (sometimes under stressful circumstances), there are bound to be some awkward, uncomfortable and painfully silent moments.

When you become a doctor, it’s no secret that you will have to deal with people all day long. And, in the course of these many human interactions (sometimes under stressful circumstances), there are bound to be some awkward, uncomfortable and painfully silent moments.

Here’s a list of the top 10 awkward patient-doctor moments:

1. Drawing a blank on an easy question. Maybe your mind is somewhere else, maybe you were on call and didn’t get much sleep or maybe you simply can’t remember the answer—but whatever the reason, drawing a blank in front of a patient is awkward (especially on an easy, routine question) and sure to result in a couple moments of uncomfortable silence.

2. Calling a patient by the wrong name. Calling a patient by the wrong name is bad enough, but it becomes really awkward if the patient says something like, “Are you sure you are giving me the right medication?” or “Are you sure you are in the right room?” This one mistake may make them question everything during the visit!

3. Mispronouncing a patient’s name. The level of awkwardness here depends largely on how bad you butcher the name and whether the patient is used to it. Either way, the patient will have to correct you, which can be somewhat uncomfortable. This is why I will never try to pronounce a name I don’t know — I’ll ask them to pronounce it for me!

4. Flatulence (enough said). I could get really graphic on this one, but for your sake, I won’t. Instead, I will simply say that when patients have unintentional “emissions” of any kind during exams, it can cause a bit of embarrassment for both parties.

5. When a patient hits on you. Whether it is borderline sexual harassment by a senior citizen, an inappropriate comment about your appearance or an invitation to dinner, this can cause extreme weirdness that can extend long into the doctor-patient relationship.

6. When you make a silly mistake. Suppose your patient has a problem with his left knee and you begin examining the right. Of course, your patient has to say something … which can result in embarrassed laughter and discomfort. I always like to test the “good” side first anyway, but they still think I’m doing something wrong!

7. When a patient says something unexpected. Patients often say strange/funny things. When a patient says something like, “When I drink too much alcohol, I throw up and my head hurts the next morning,” it can be difficult to know how to respond. It may be time to start asking the CAGE questions!

8. Dropping/spilling things. Although this is a little awkward for every doctor, it can be especially awkward for surgeons who are expected to be steady-handed.

9. When patients make inappropriate/off-color jokes. This happens ALL the time. A patient’s jibe about their own demise or health condition, self-deprecating humor, sexual innuendo or other crude/racist/culturally insensitive comments can render a doctor speechless in seconds.

10. Asking for help with personal problems. Patients sometimes ask for inappropriate help with personal problems (i.e. telling a family doctor “I need to break up with my boyfriend, but I don’t know what to say”). Other than offering a referral to a therapist, what are you supposed to say to that?

Although these awkward moments may cause discomfort at the time, they provide excellent fodder for stories and can give you and good laugh for years to come.