Doctors v. Lawyers

Because of my disabilities, I spend an inordinate amount of time with doctors. It’s not unusual to have four medical appointments in one week. As frustrating as my illnesses are, the interactions I have with doctors are often more demoralizing than the conditions they treat me for.  And I think that my law degree has something to do with the horrible way I feel after each doctor’s office visit.

The common assumption is that because I have a law degree, doctors are more cautious with my care because they fear I will sue them. My experience has been quite the opposite. A doctor’s bedside manner becomes arrogant and resentful upon learning what my background is.

Take my glaucoma doctor. In the 14 months since I started seeing him, he has yet to learn my name, but his staff tells me that he refers to me as “the lawyer” before he enters the exam room. I’m a law professor—and he never treated me when I was still in practice—but in his mind, I’m a lawyer, and that’s a loaded term.

My glaucoma doctor runs a high-volume practice whose profitability turns on moving patients in and out of exam rooms as quickly as possible and developing one-size-fits-all protocol to meet daily quotas.

I do not fit well into this scheme. For one, I am about 40 years younger than his average patient. The condescending tone he uses on the elderly is something I will not put up with. I’ve asked him to look me in the eye when communicating his new treatment plan, and to stop laughing when describing my impending loss of vision. He reacts to these requests brusquely, annoyed that I slow him down and that my tone is not deferential.

Perhaps due to my legal training, I ask more questions than the average patient. And questioning authority, when necessary, is not something I shy away from. I respect the knowledge my doctors have, but they are not gods and they do make mistakes. Despite the defensive way my doctors react to my questions, I’ve succeeded in talking them out of over-aggressive treatment plans in which horrific side effects were not worth the marginal benefits certain medications might deliver. I’ve also reminded a PCP that no, I can’t rub Aspercreme on my swollen elbow because, hello, I’m allergic to aspirin.

I’m writing a book about some of the mindboggling experiences I’ve had with doctors. I workshopped a chapter from my book at a writing conference I attended in Virginia this summer. All of my classmates received each other’s material by email before we arrived at the conference. However, it is considered bad form to discuss someone’s writing before the class has a chance to talk about it using the workshop format.

There was one doctor in my small class, and he sought me out the night before classes began. He told me that he’d made a point of looking at all the women’s hands during dinner so he could identify the writer with Rheumatoid Arthritis. He cornered me when everyone else had left the dinner table, insisting that I show him my feet so that he could examine them as well. I quickly pushed them as far as I could under the table, but he still caught a glimpse, and announced that I was “doing great.” He told me that I was quite lucky and that I should thank my doctors for the good care I’d received. In a very meta moment--I was workshopping a book about horrible experiences with doctors--this doctor told me that he hated the idea behind my book.

I politely rejected his conclusions, explaining that for a 38-year-old, I am struggling to manage quite a few difficult illnesses. I told him that I lead a good life because I am determined to do so, and also because I was raised by a woman who advocated on my behalf and made the brilliant choice to have me join a competitive swim team at age 11—turning me into an athlete and likely saving my body from severe joint damage.

“I am who I am despite my doctors,” I said.

The doctor scoffed.

“If you were ever treated poorly, it’s because you’re a nasty lawyer,” he said.

There’s some gendered derision going on here. Not only am I assertive because of my legal training, I’m an outspoken woman. In a male doctor’s office (at least 90% of my doctors are male), I am threatening. They make me pay for the insecurity I make them feel by treating my very reasonable questions as insults.

There was a brief moment in time in which my terrible experiences with doctors came in handy.  

In practice, I was very good at depositions. I enjoyed building up to the questions I really wanted to ask. I lived for the slow kill. And I was excellent at deposing doctors. Because I’d spent so much time reading my own medical records, it was no big deal to read someone else’s. I knew from my own experience that medical charts often contained inconsistencies and mistakes, and I delighted in finding them. In a sad yet necessary moment, I managed to get a doctor to admit, after hours of reviewing her own notes, that her patient was malingering. Without my own medical misadventures, I wouldn’t have had the confidence or competence to depose doctors effectively.

Not all my experiences are bad. I’ve noticed that the more skilled and confident my doctor is, the less flack he gives me about what I do for a living. I see a wonderful ophthalmologist at the University of Utah. It is next to impossible to get a job there. Not only do I trust my Utah doctor’s decisions, I also like him. In addition to his clinical duties, he has teaching responsibilities, and we’ve bonded over our love of the time we spend in the classroom.

He also acknowledges how challenging my conditions are, and that my professional success has been hard-fought. He lets his staff and his patients crack jokes at his expense and is constantly smiling. He loves what he does, and he knows he does it well. I like to think that he sees a little bit of that in me too.

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