More threads by Retired


What Makes a Good Patient?

May 1, 2006
The blind, overweight patient in the wheelchair has terrible pain in her back and burning pain in her legs. She also has advanced arthritis in her knees and end-stage circulatory disease, which have left her with two useless legs that are red, swollen and infected. Now her shoulder has started to hurt. She can't raise her arm to comb her hair. Five or six other things are wrong with her--she tells me about each. Some we can help; most we can't. I tell her as much.

In my office, she listens carefully. I hardly ever have to repeat myself with Doris (not her real name). She asks questions--mostly good ones. She needs lots of tests, various therapies. I ultimately recommend an operation on her shoulder. Sick, weakened by multiple symptoms and with lousy insurance, Doris is--surprise--a really good patient. She communicates efficiently with her doctors and treats us with respect and trust. She has reasonable expectations. I can tell she looks things up, but her knowledge is helpful--never challenging. I've talked about her with other doctors, and we agree on this: when you see Doris' name on your day's list, you know you're going to work hard. But you're usually glad her name is there.

Few patients realize how deeply they can affect their doctors. That is a big secret in medicine--one doctors hate to admit. We think about, talk about, dream about our patients. We went into clinical medicine because we like dealing on a personal, even intimate level with people who have chosen to put their bodies in our hands. Our patients make or break our days.

Take the compliment. Our career choice means we really do think that you--with your aches and pains--are more interesting than trading hot securities, more fun than a courtroom full of lawyers. Massaging the ego is the key to manipulating responsible types like doctors. When we feel your trust, you have us.

The most compelling reasons to be a good patient are selfish ones. You will get more than free drug samples if your doctor is comfortable and communicates easily with you. You'll get more of the mind that you came for, a mind working better because it's relaxed--recalling and associating freely, more receptive to small, even subliminal clues. That means better medical care. But you should try to be a good patient for unselfish reasons too. We worry about you 60 hours a week. We gave up our 20s for you. Why not show us some love? It's not hard.

The medical relationship is intrinsically one-sided. It's about you and your problem. I am going to find out more about you in the next 20 minutes than you will find out about me. Don't fret about that. We don't expect you to ask much about us. Good patients answer questions accurately and completely. They ask questions too.

But many patients talk too much. You might notice that we are writing when we see you--we are creating your chart. We need specific facts but not every fact in your life. Here's a classic exchange:

How long has your shoulder hurt, Beatrice? "Oh, for quite some time now." But for how long? How many months? "Oh, at least since the wedding--well, then again it did act up a bit when Margaret came back from Ireland ..."

All I want to do is write something like "Right shoulder, 6 months, no trauma" on my chart. Although I lack the heart to tell her, Beatrice would be a better patient if she tried to be a bit more concise. There are lots of Beatrices.

Here's another classic:

"Well, I don't need to have good manners--I'm sick--and I'm not going to be a patsy for some smooth talker in a white coat. The squeaky wheel gets the grease, you know."

That is the mind-set of many patients who abuse their doctors; my bet is they abuse other people as well. Any good doctor knows when you're too sick to be polite and will let it roll off his back. The squeaky wheel we don't like is the one playing a dominance game. That big wheel is likely to get a shorter, less sensitive examination and more tests, and then still more tests to follow up the abnormalities in the first tests, followed by extra consultations with specialists--anything to relieve the doctor's responsibility for a bad patient.

Are doctors good patients? Others may disagree, but I think they are. Medical jargon doesn't faze them, so communication is easier, and their expectations tend to be more reasonable. Anyone in medicine is painfully aware that there are plenty of problems for which we have no good answer. Nurses tend to be even better patients, being adept at following doctors' orders--a virtue lacking in doctors.

Doctors and nurses also know when to respect an educated opinion. When the MRI says one thing and I want to do another, they are more likely to be on my side. But you need not be a medical professional, or educated at all, to be a great patient. It's pretty much the same strain of human decency--a truthful consideration of who the people around you are and of what they are trying to do--that infects a good patient and any good person.

?Dr. Haig has a private practice in the New York City area and writes a column for


Thanks David! :) When I first read the article, it rang true because of what I learned about the ways to interact with health professionals during my career. I am not a health professional, but worked in an associated industry.

Physicians are basically scientists, usually accustomed to frank but polite and collegial interaction with colleagues and with few exceptions, people who become health professionals, in my view, are people who like helping people.

Physicians seem to respond best to people who interact with them as partners, and by doing so, a productive long term relationship can be formed.


Account Closed
Great article,

And here I thought I made a lousy patient because I hate being sick and love to take charge of my own affairs. In fact, at least according to the article, I make a great patient.

I try to treat everyone like I am talking one human being to another, you just may expertise in an area I don't, re: doctors, counsellors... I truely believe everyone should be treated as an equal and with respect.

Its one of the older articles on the site but its a good one.



love to take charge of my own affairs.

I feel that as patients we need to work in a partnership with our health care providers by being informed and not accepting blind direction without understanding all the benefits and risks.

Socialized healthcare systems have blurred the line in this relationship at times, but my own view is that our healthcare providers are consultants we pay (either directly or through taxes) whose advice we consider and make decisions about our own care and treatment.

BTW, in order to ensure our wishes are followed if and when we lose the ability or competence to make our wishes known, we should have a living will prepared and made available to our family.
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