Six Things Patients Do That Frustrate Their Doctors

Things patients do that drive their doctors crazy, and how to break the cycle.

ByABC News
June 19, 2009, 5:08 PM

June 22, 2009— -- With all the Internet doctor rating sites, health insurance ratings and online board certification databases to check, many people today have a low tolerance for bad doctors.

But after your smiling physicians say goodbye and shut the office-room doors, there's a good chance that they wish they could rate you.

A frequently cited 1999 study in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that doctors find up to 15 percent of patient visits "difficult."

In a more recent article in the same journal, published in February of this year, 449 internists and family practitioners surveyed said major difficulties arose when patients appeared to be dissatisfied with their care or when patients had unrealistic expectations.

But, beyond personality differences, many doctors run into patients with bad habits, which makes diagnosing and treating them seem maddening.

The following is a formal and informal collection of the top doctor-irking habits by patients.

Frustration No. 1: Meddling Families in the Room

The first time a young person goes into the check-up room alone can be a rite of passage, of sorts. But a small percentage of adults never take that step.

About 16 percent of all patients bring a companion -- a spouse, adult child, parent or friend -- to their doctor's appointments, according to a 2002 study in The Journal of Family Practice.

While many find that the comfort and support helps them through their appointment, the crowd can sometimes interfere with a doctor's work or a patient's well-being.

"You get a husband and wife in a room and one is overweight and one of them is not, and the other starts saying, 'See, I told you so,' if you talk about weight," said Dr. Keith Ayoob, a nutrition and obesity specialist at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City.

Such distractions may impede the doctor's ability to communicate, or the patient's ability to discuss his or her symptoms.

Dr. Sharon Hull and Dr. Karen Broquet offered this advice regarding companions in the doctor's office in the June 2007 edition of Family Practice Management.

"When patients have companions in the exam room, be sure to speak directly to the patient, avoid taking sides in any conflict, and evaluate all parties' understanding of the information and the management plan," they wrote.

Hull and Broquet also suggested steps to discern whether the patient actually wants the companion present or is feeling manipulated into bringing the person.

"Often, if they don't tell you what supplements they're taking, it's not until the point that they have a potentially serious reaction that you know they're taking one that might interfere with their other drugs," said Dr. John Sutherland, director emeritus of the Northeast Iowa Medical Education Foundation in Waterloo.

One example Sutherland cited is St. John's Wort, an herbal supplement available over the counter for mood improvement. He said that the supplement has the potential to interact with certain antidepressants, drugs that the patients may be likely to be on.

"We try to do a good job when these patients come in for visits ... to try and find out what OTC medicines they are taking, as well as medications that they may have received from another physician," he said. "But they aren't always forthcoming about this."

The consequences can be both frustrating to doctors and dangerous for patients. Sutherland said that most patients who take these herbal supplements do so on the recommendations of friends or family, and they do not necessarily tell their physicians when they start doing so.

"Fortunately, most of these things that people take have limited evidence of value, and so most of the time they don't hurt them either," Sutherland said.

But, he added, the guesswork involved when patients don't come clean about the herbal OTCs they are taking often makes for a major headache.

"These kinds of things, to me, are far more problematic and frustrating than people who don't adhere to lifestyle recommendations," he said.

Sutherland cited two examples this week of patients on medication for high blood pressure who decided to tamper with the doses at home, with no notice to their doctors.

"One had diabetes and hypertension, and she had cut her medications in half," Sutherland said. "Consequently, her blood pressure had gone way above the goal for diabetes. She did not have many complications from [the medication], but she, on her own, decided that it would be good for her to cut back on that.

"Another patient had stopped a diuretic she used with a blood-pressure medication, just because she didn't like the side effect of more urination during the day," he said. "When she came in, her blood pressure was over 200."

Sutherland said most patients do inform him when they have unwanted side effects or problems with medication, but it also isn't unusual for people to not let on until months later.

Patients who stop their medications can cause headaches for more people than just their doctors.

People who stop taking prescribed antibiotics before they have finished the course may only kill the weak microorganisms, leaving the strong to develop resistance and perhaps infect others, according to an advisory of the Tennessee Department of Health. Bacteria tend to live up to the old saying, whatever doesn't kill us makes us stronger.

Mood-altering medication can also be dangerous to quit without a doctor's consultation. Benzodiazepines -- the class of drug that encompasses some sleep aids and anxiety medications like Xanax -- have recently come with a warning from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The FDA warns that quitting abruptly can result in more than 40 withdrawal side effects, including headache, anxiety, tension, depression, insomnia, confusion, dizziness, "derealization" and short-term memory loss.

Obesity can lead to diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and arthritis -- especially in the knees, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Yet losing just 10 percent of a person's body weight can delay or prevent some of these diseases.

"The most frustrating thing for me is patients whose lifestyle is making them miserable but they won't change it," Green said.

Green said many problems, such as sleep apnea and chronic tiredness, can be attributed to eating too much and moving too little. In that case, the treatment isn't disease, but "lack of health."

"[It's] people whose knees are killing them, because they're 80 pounds overweight, and they're dead set on the idea that the fix is a drug, or an injection, or surgery," he said.

"I'm in good shape, pretty fit, and my knees hurt after a day of hiking with a 50-pound pack. These folks are carrying more weight than that, lugging it 24/7, and they weren't fit to start with," he said. "Why do they hurt? Hmm, not a major medical mystery ..."

"For me, what is most frustrating is when patients view doctors as simply a source of a signature for something they want, without really wanting the physician's guidance or opinion," said Dr. Thomas Schwenk, chairman of family medicine at the University of Michigan.

Schwenk is not alone. In the February issue of Archives of Internal Medicine survey of doctors' difficult patients, the most frequently cited complaint was patients who insisted on getting an unnecessary drug.

However, that doesn't mean Schwenk is against any research or questions in the office.

"I don't mind when patients do their own research on the Internet; I actually value it, as long as their purpose is to be informed so they can engage in complex discussions and decision-making," Schwenk said.

Many patients who demand a specific test might have had bad experiences with a doctor in the past, or may be going through life stressors. There's a host of other reasons as well, including psychological problems such as borderline personality disorder, according to Hull and Broquet, writing in the journal of Family Practice Management.

Yet while much ink is spilled on how to deal with the difficult patient, most doctors understand it's not about them.

"Who cares? The patient is the center of care, not the physician," said Dr. Scott Fields, vice chairman of family medicine at the Oregon Health and Science University in Portland.

"This is part of what is wrong with how we provide care," he said. "We need to be much more worried about why the patient does what he/she does and much less about how it affects us."