The patient looks at me, desperate – “But what do you think it is, Preeya?”
Honestly, I have no idea. Which is not what I say out loud to the patient, who is getting increasingly anxious about the abdominal pain she has had for the past three days.
“I know it’s nothing nasty. Your appetite is normal, you don’t have a fever, your tummy is soft on examination and you’re still able to attend work and the gym despite the pain. So I think we should catch up in 72 hours and see how you’re going. If anything changes you come sooner.”
She stares back at me: “OK, but what’s causing the pain?”
The truth is we don’t always have the answer. Despite how the community often perceives us, or how we project ourselves, doctors are not magicians.
When I tell my patients: “Honestly, I don’t know” or “I can’t answer that”, I’m often faced with a shocked expression.
“But you’re meant to know everything,” a patient once said to me.
Medicine can be grey, and sometimes very very grey, (certainly more than 50 shades) a lot of the time.
Perhaps not all of my colleagues will openly share this, but we don’t always have a single diagnosis for that tummy ache/headache/fatigue, we don’t always know what’s going on in the human body.
As a GP in particular, we often rationalise the patient’s symptoms; we know common things occur commonly. We know there are certain life-threatening diagnoses, like meningitis or an ectopic pregnancy, that we cannot miss – but we can’t always tell with 100% certainty what is causing a niggling symptom.
We may never know exactly what caused an ache or niggle, but it often settles on its own simply with time.
A decade ago my patients would have referred to me as “Doctor Alexander”. Now it’s “Preeya” most of the time (some of my older patients still insistent on the “doctor” part), and I have to say I much prefer the more casual relationship with my patients.
Back in the day, the therapeutic relationship was paternalistic. The doctor would tell the patient what to do, how to treat their headache or back pain and there was no involvement of the patient in the management plan.
Now, however, I work hard to give my patients options, empower them with knowledge and resources so that they can make their own informed decision about their treatments.
Despite the casual (first-name basis) relationship many now have with their family doctor, I think there is still a perception that we are “Gods”, magicians or some other magical creature. Personally, I would prefer unicorn.
Despite calling me Preeya, and plenty of lively banter and laughs in our consult, my patient often still expects me to have all the answers and they’re often disappointed when I don’t.
My husband, a nearly qualified plastic surgeon, will often have to explain his patients (and our friends at BBQs) that just because a plastic surgeon does a procedure does not mean there will be no scar after a surgery.
If you put your hand in a mincer/juicer/lawn mower (all things he has had to operate on in his time) you will most likely have some form of scar.
Some patients will comment “But a plastic surgeon did it and I have this scar”. I’m often having to explain that the “scar” they have is a pretty good result given the procedure they’ve had, but a scar (in most cases) is the norm. It is the size and nature of the scar that we have some control over and why we might involve a plastic surgeon in the first place. No scar at all usually isn’t feasible. We are doctors, not magicians after all.
When a patient asks me: “What would you do, Preeya?” sometimes it’s easy to answer, “Well my child has had the full meningococcal B vaccination course, so you can see where I stand on that one”.
But when they ask me if they should leave their husband who repeatedly pushes them against a wall in front of their child, or chips away at them verbally, telling them how useless they are day in and day out, I can’t tell them what I would do when they ask this.
It’s not ethical. I risk making them feel further alienated and judged. Their sister or mother or brother or colleague or neighbour has probably already told them (usually a hundred times or more) to leave.
Adding to the chorus just makes them feel further isolated. Generally, a doctor can’t ever answer that question (and we are trained not to). It’s our job to provide counsel, support, options, resources, not to give our opinion.
So, while patienbts may look at me like I have no idea when I say: “I can’t answer that one for you” it isn’t because I don’t have an opinion, it’s because I shouldn’t.
Recently a friend of mine, also a GP, suggested I explained that when we say: “I’ll just look up the guidelines” or “I’m going to check the dose of that,” we are not “Googling”.
I’ve heard from multiple patients and family members that a doctor started “Googling” in front of them; they’re completely shocked as if the roof on the doctor’s office had blown off and Dorothy (with Toto) had flown straight over with her ruby red slippers mid-consult.
On behalf of our profession, let me be honest – we cannot possibly remember every dose of every drug, every management regime, every set of blood tests that should be ordered when we suspect someone has lupus.
We often look at guidelines recommended by reputable medical bodies that exist to help doctors navigate the abyss of ever-changing medical information.
Sure, there’s probably the odd doctor who really does “Google”, but most of us don’t.
When I tell a patient: “I’m going to see what antibiotic we should use here given you’re allergic to penicillin” or “we need to exclude you don’t have an underlying cause to your high blood pressure – let me check which tests we need to do for someone in your age group” I’m not asking Larry and Sergey (they founded Google – I had to Google to find that out). I’m consulting my medical search engines.
And on that note, while we are discussing Google, please know that I have done years and years of study to be full qualifiewd to sit in my office with my plaque outside my door.
So, when patient says to me: “But Google suggested I have a brain tumour”, I know that the years of study and the heart beating in my chest makes me a sounder medical practitioner than their laptop.
I may not have all the answers, I will admit to that, but I promise I can do a better job than Google at diagnosing their headache.
Despite the perception that I should have all the answers, all the time – I don’t. None of us do, and if we, the medical profession, tell our patients that we do then we are lying.
The beautiful thing about general practice (but also the reason why many of us burn out or develop a mental health disorder) is the uncertainty.
We cover the entirety of medicine – asthma, diabetes, children, elderly, vaccinations, cancer screening and diagnosis, headaches, back aches, psoriasis and acne – we do it all.
No doctor, GP or otherwise, can know the answer all the time. That uncertainty of medicine can be beautiful, but sometimes it can be very anxiety provoking.
As the patient walks out your door you desperately rack your brain wondering if you missed something and that same patient pops into your mind as your head hits the pillow; you say a silent prayer, even if you don’t have anyone to pray to, that you haven’t missed anything major.
It has taken me years in a relatively short career to realise that not knowing everything all the time is OK. I’m very honest with my patients who most of the time are grateful for it.
So, we are not magicians. We are doctors who rely on guidelines and, sometimes, the power of time to heal odd niggles that we will never be able to diagnose.
We don’t have all the answers all the time. We do grapple uncertainty every day in our job. And we do leave scars.
That’s the truth.
Dr Preeya Alexander is a GP working in Melbourne and a graduate of Adelaide University. She is passionate about all things prevention in medicine.