How to Behave if You Are a Doctor: Proper Bedside Manner Explicated

I hate American-style doctors. I loathe them and despise them. They seem cranky, harried, superior, condescending, unpleasant, and pushy. Ok, they are usually right – that’s a benefit but their behavior….The one who sat staring at his computer while he asked me questions, typing in the answers. The one who snapped “look it up on the internet” in answer to my question. The ones, several of them, who watched impassive while I cried. The one who, when I mentioned his diagnosis was opposite to the diagnosis I had received the day before, shrugged. Being given acupuncture in a freezing cold, storage closet, then left alone for half an hour. When the doctor came back and found me crying and shivering, she announced, “Some people find acupuncture helpful.”

Ah, but Indian doctors in the Middle East. That, my friends, is where it is at. That’s who you want and need, oh so desperately, when you are not feeling well, when the pain seems to have no cause and no end.

The basic question is what do you want: brutal competence or kindness? Do you want some white coat, fantastically fit, to breeze into the room where you have been waiting, freezing, in a paper-thin robe which doesn’t fit, hurl a few questions at you, poke you in much the same manner as you treat a Thanksgiving turkey, pronounce (without justification) an answer, scrawl out a prescription and dash away? Do you want someone who has ten minutes, and only ten minutes, to spend on you, most of that time spent reading your chart? Do you want someone to whom you are a ‘case,’ who ‘presents’ with certain symptoms?

Or do you want to be a person? With a name, a real name? When I got bit by a scorpion, the nurses at the hospital crowded around with questions, not questions that had anything to do with my medical history, but where I was from, was I married, where did I work, how long I had been in town, did I like it here, was I happy – annoying and yet comforting. I was not ‘presenting with scorpion bite.’ I was a person who fit into the life of the nurses and the life of my town.

I still remember the first time I went to a doctor in the Middle East. I showed up at the hospital, paid a small fee and a nurse motioned me to go in the room. And there was the doctor, sitting at her desk, waiting for me with a cup of tea and a weary smile. I handed her the folder with my information, she tossed it down without looking at it.   “How are you?” she asked. “How are you?” was there ever an American-style doctor who asked me that? “What’s wrong?” perhaps, but the normal procedure is to read the file, then ask for clarification. This doctor asked several more questions, gradually getting to the point of my visit.

And she was tired as, I eventually learned, all of the Indian doctors I have seen in the Middle East are. This sounds rather odd, to want an exhausted doctor. But American-style doctors usually bounce into the room Tigger-esque, stare at file, fire a few rapid questions, throw out a prescription, then bounce out. Imagine a slow doctor, a quiet doctor, one who has the time to sip some tea while talking to you. One who looks world-weary, as if your pain is not some personal failing to live up to a Puritan ideal of health, but part of the general malaise of the world.

Indian doctors in the Middle East all look like they know children are dying of cholera while I am moaning on about some insignificant complaint. But they, bowing to karma, are stuck listening to me instead of doing real work. I find that very comforting, as if, no matter if I ended up with gout, leprosy, TB, malaria and dropsy all at once, they had seen worse not one hour before. American-style doctors look at me as if I am the ten-minute interruption between them writing an article for The Lancet and their squash game.

I had an x-ray that showed an abnormality. Unfortunately I was in a hospital at the time with an American-style doctor. I asked her what showed in the x-ray and she, full of energy, snapped, “You will need to make an appointment with the surgeon. He can see you in about a month.” Not exactly the reaction you would want. “But what is it,” I asked, “What is the problem?”

“All over the world doctors are not reading x-rays!” she barked.

Oh so comforting. Spent a sleepless and terrified night in hotel room, got back to home and straight to my tired, Indian, homeopathic doctor.

When I walk into his office, he slowly stands up and smiles sweetly, “Oh, it is you! How are you?”

I hand him the x-rays and he puts them down on his desk without looking at them, then, “What is wrong?”

Words! Communication! Exchange! I explain, then he opens the envelope, checks the x-rays and the written report. First words out his mouth, “You are ok.” My blood pressure sinks 20 points.

He explains all the medical terminology, what is going on. When I say I want to see a medical doctor as well, he recommends someone and explains how to get to her clinic. I take my homeopathic medicine and drive over to the clinic.

At reception, I register for the clinic, pay $9 consultation visit fee, get a little ticket with a number and go to her office. My number is on display, so I walk right in. She is sitting at her desk, looking tired. I hand her my chart and the x-rays. She sets them on her desk without opening them. We chat. She opens the envelope, checks the x-rays and the written report. She calls the surgeon and they both agree I am fine. We chat for a while longer. No time pressure, no pronouncements from on high, no bouncing, no dashing. People talk about the slow-food movement; I want to start the slow-doctor movement.