10 Worst Things Physicians Say to Patients

Whether delivered intentionally or not, some physician comments are unhelpful at best and low-blows at worst. Saying certain things to patients can actually increase your risk of having a malpractice suit filed against you, making it especially important for you to always be mindful when speaking with patients.

As a physician who works with patients and families all day, you are bound to put your foot in your mouth from time to time. But, even though it is practically inevitable, it is still embarrassing and should be avoided whenever possible.

And, whether delivered intentionally or not, some physician comments are unhelpful at best and low-blows at worst. According to the Physicians Practice website, saying certain things to patients can actually increase your risk of having a malpractice suit filed against you, making it especially important for you to mind your Ps and Qs.

Here is a list of 10 things that doctors should avoid saying to their patients at all costs:

1. Anything in doctor-speak

When doctors start spouting medical jargon, patients typically have one of three reactions:

  • Stop listening
  • Freak out
  • Get confused

When you talk to your patients, be sure to thoroughly explain things in terms that are easy for them to follow. After all, you can’t expect patients to follow advice they don’t understand.

2. Anything snarky, sarcastic or rude

Sure, sarcasm may be used with abandon on your favorite sit-com, but it should be avoided in all patient interactions. Any form of ridicule—perceived or otherwise—is likely to ruin your relationship with the patient, stall their recovery, and potentially result in a formal complaint against you. The data shows that physicians with the best rapport with patients are sued the least. Being rude is an instant rapport wrecker.

3. “Don’t worry about that now"

Minimizing your patient’s concerns is dangerous. If you treat your patients as though their concerns are trivial, they will be unlikely to share important information with you in the future. A lack of trust and disclosure will jeopardize your patient’s safety and your ability to provide effective treatment.

4. Saying anything too quickly

Patients are entitled to your undivided attention, so you should avoid appearing rushed or telling a patient that he or she has limited time with you. Sometimes, it is best to just be quiet to demonstrate that you are really listening. Rushing to respond to patients' questions may cause them to feel like you are cutting them off or talking over them.

5. “Do you understand?”

No one likes to admit that they don’t understand something, so nearly all patients will respond with a “yes” even if they are totally confused. A better approach might be to explain that it is important that you and the patient are on the same page. Then, ask the patient to repeat what they understand of your conversation in their own words. I use the phrase, “tell me in your own words what the next steps are going to be.”

6. “When you are older/overweight/out of shape/diabetic/etc, you should expect these health issues"

Saying something like this suggests a disinterest in “minor” patient complaints. Even though these complaints may seem minor to you, they are very real to the patient. This is just another way of minimizing a patient’s concerns and, depending on what tone you take, could even be construed as ridicule.

7. “It won’t hurt at all"

If you want to land in hot water, this is a good way to start. Every patient has a different pain threshold, so the safest route is to explain the procedure and discuss the patient’s options for pain management.

8. “I’m afraid I’ve got bad news"

This is melodramatic and doesn’t do your patient any favors. Although it can be difficult to be direct when delivering upsetting news, patients will appreciate your honesty and willingness to get right to the point.

9. “Why didn’t you see a doctor sooner?”

Chances are that your patient is in denial, embarrassed, couldn’t afford the doctor bill, couldn’t find a ride, etc. Making your patient feel guilty and essentially blaming them for “ignoring” their condition is just mean.

10. “If you hadn’t [insert destructive behavior], this wouldn’t have happened"

Although it may be true that your patient probably wouldn’t have gotten lung cancer if he hadn’t smoked three packs of cigarettes a day for 30 years, it won’t do him any good to pump him full of regret and rub his face in it.

Bonus

This bonus one is one that always makes me cringe: “I’m not sure why [insert doctor’s name] did that. It’s wrong/stupid/not appropriate."

I’m the first one to admit that we all make mistakes, but calling out your colleagues does nothing but add fear, anxiety, and anger to your patient's current situation. Discuss the situation first with the colleague you think did something wrong. If there is any sort of wrong doing, report it to the state licensure board and protect not just your current patient, but every future patient.