I always feel disappointed when my patient says to me, “Doc, I’m really sorry I wasted your time.” Maybe the problem turns out to be less severe than originally thought, or the person didn’t need a prescription.
The other day, a man came in with a red spot on his ankle at the site of an insect bite, worried that it might be from Lyme disease. When I explained that I could understand his distress, but it did not have the appearance of erythema migrans (Lyme rash), he apologized.
I’ve been working on how to express support for patients such as this. My latest iteration is, “I’m just glad you felt comfortable coming to see me. Any concern you bring is well worth my time.” I’m not sure I have it just right yet, but it’s getting closer.
I worry that patients will avoid seeing their doctor for what they perceive to be trivial, but that may be a sign of something quite serious. Recently, I saw a patient who came in with a lingering sore throat, at the encouragement of one of our nurses. He prefaced our conversation with, “I’m sorry to bother you with this …”, but he turned out to have a tonsillar abscess requiring emergency drainage.
While certain symptoms such as chest pain, shortness of breath, or sudden weakness should always prompt a visit to the emergency room, anything that has you feeling that something isn’t quite right is worth reporting to your doctor. The office can provide guidance about how quickly you need to be evaluated.
I am also concerned that patients are somehow getting the idea from me or other physicians that we don’t have time for anything but critical conditions, or at least very interesting ones. I think I can safely speak for my primary-care colleagues in saying this is not at all the case for any of us.
Few things are more stressful than fearing that you have a medical problem. You should never have to carry the additional burden of wondering whether your concern is worthy of your doctor’s time. Busy schedules, financial stress, and office inefficiencies can sometimes impede access to care, but the only requirement for an office visit is one simple thing: your feeling of concern.