The “Ungrateful Patient”: The Hidden Killer of America’s Greatest Physicians

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When I was a young boy, I looked up to my cousin Maury more than anyone else.  He was one of my all time greatest role models in the field of medicine.  I remember when he was the only medical student in our entire family.  There had been no doctors in the family prior to him.  I would stare in awe at him when he would leave a family event in his scrubs and well-pressed white labcoats.  I wanted desperately to be able to strut into the room like him after he saved a life.  I cherished the times he would chug a mug of cold beer while sharing the juicy details of resuscitations, surgeries, and how he was able to crack complex medical mysteries before the highest ranking attending physicians.  My parents didn’t think I had what it took academically or emotionally to become a doctor.  I didn’t have the patience to study for hours on end.  I fainted when I saw my sister get a mole removed and her blood started oozing out.  But, when I saw my cousin–his swagger, his cool confidence, his bright eyes, and his hope for saving everyone who set foot in the hospital–I knew that I was willing to do almost anything to be just like him.

I still can’t believe that I made it.  I made it through the gory surgeries, the hellish nights of studying, and all of the abuse on the wards.  I earned an MD with my sweat and determination.  My ambition was fueled by my cousin Maury—the man I strived to become.  His image was etched in the back of my mind.  When I couldn’t wake up to round on patients, I would think….Maury would have been up an hour earlier.  When I didn’t have the energy to finish my dictations, I would think…..Maury would always finish his work before coming home to his cold beer.   Maury had always been at the top of his class in medical school and was a leader in his residency program.  I could not have asked for a greater role model for my career.

I left home for seven years to attend medical school and do my residency.  I then ended up working at the same hospital as Maury.  He became an Emergency Room doctor.  I became an Internist.   I saw him in the ER one night when I had just moved back into town.  I was so excited to see him after such a long time.  He had married a very wealthy woman (who had inherited an enormous fortune) and did not need to work anymore.   When I saw him, I noticed that he was not himself.  In fact….the cousin whom I had grown up with had completely transformed.  He was angry.  He was bitter.  He was….miserably unhappy.

My greatest pillar of hope for my career growing up had now transformed into the antithesis of hope.  Maury told me that, before I ran into him, a patient (heroin addict) called him “a useless piece of flesh” because he wouldn’t give him high dose pain killers.  The patient before that spat in his face when he came to examine his heart.   A patient spat in his face?  This was after the patient yelled at him for making him wait in the Emergency Room for two hours.  Who were these ungrateful individuals?   My cousin broke down in front of me.  He told me that his wife was begging him to quit.  He did not need the money.  His career had no longer become rewarding.  He was losing his hair and aging prematurely.  He confided in me that night that every year that he practiced Emergency Medicine, the ER census would go up, and the gratitude for his services would decline precipitously.

Reality whipped me hard in the face that night in the ER.  You can have all the money in the world, you could be saving lives, or you could be parting the Red Sea for all I am concerned, but you begin to develop profound feelings of emptiness when there is a lack of appreciation for your work.  Patients need to become aware of the importance of gratitude if they want to keep the very best doctors in practice.   How could patients treat their physicians so poorly?  Maury had inspired people to become physicians.   He led a generation of new doctors in the family.  His success and optimism had revived me when I wanted to quit so many times during the most brutal months of my medical training.  I had grown to appreciate the practice of medicine more and more.  But Maury had become more and more disillusioned.

How do you educate the “ungrateful” to become more “grateful?”   Is it possible?   The DoctorCPR Physicians Group (October 2014) recently conducted a survey of 80 doctors about their career satisfaction.  The results revealed that doctors who “felt appreciated by their patients” were, on average, four times as happy as doctors who did not feel appreciated.  Doctors who “felt well-compensated in their profession” were only twice as happy as doctors who did not feel well compensated.

A simple thank you card, a hug, a phone call, a handshake…..even a one line thank you e-mail…….patients need to be aware that even the little things they do to say “thank you “ to their physicians will make the biggest impact on the practice of medicine and on the future generations of physicians.   The rapidly growing tsunami of ungrateful patients is drowning the morale of our country’s greatest doctors.  Gratitude is what can save the disgruntled, overworked, overwhelmed, and exhausted physician from disillusionment and abandoning what was once considered society’s noblest profession.

Dr. Paul Lee—Editorial Writer for DoctorCPR.com: America’s #1 Website for Medical Jobs + Practice Resources

10 thoughts on “The “Ungrateful Patient”: The Hidden Killer of America’s Greatest Physicians

  1. That’s why I would never come even close to being a doctor. After I uplifted my nuclear family and made them all abundantly rich, they became EXTREMELY unappreciative of all things they receive ’cause of me. I’m not a doctor, but I can understand the empty feeling left when doctors are not appreciated because of what my nuclear family did to me after all I did for them. If I had become a doctor, life saver, heart saver, spiritual saver or anything else that would bring glory to ANY one, they wouldn’t appreciate it. One should just make a lot of $$, and just enjoy oneself in this life. Why do doctors do it if they are only going to get screwed just like I did? Enjoy yourself SELFISHLY and to the utmost for YOU ONLY. Paco.

  2. No matter how hard you try as a doctor, patients will try to find fault and blame you as the source of their ailments, when the truth is they came to you for help and you tried everything to fix them and they were noncompliant.

  3. I would expand this to every profession there is. Without appreciation, it is difficult to know your hard work is not in vain. In the medical arena we may have support from our peers, but there can be great criticism, and an overall lack of empathy from both internal and external sources. We are charged with saving lives, yet life itself seems less precious to many, including burnt out physicians, nurses, ancillary professionals. Respect is a word of the past. It’s so very sad.

  4. I have housed medical students during their rotations. I know now what they go through. I have so much respect for what they have given up to become doctors. All my students have been great, dedicated women.
    I have also been a nanny for a VERY arrogant surgeon who treated everyone like he was god. I don’t know what makes some doctors like that, but I have met more good than bad. Kudos to all the wonderful doctors out there!

  5. Sadly this is the state of this country. Our “internet educated” public has no concept about what it takes to be a great physician. Their “service at your fingertips ingratitude” and hunger for initiating medical lawsuits are sadly becoming the norm and sinking this once noble profession. So sad and tragic.

  6. It is a well known fact that if your workers are happy, your production will go up in any field. We are not different as physicians. With all the sacrifices we have made, I think we can give our best when we are happy and appreciated! I wish every patient and family member would understand this.

  7. The other day I was walking out of a nearby Walmart after picking up “ship to store” stuff when I heard someone yell “Doc” from behind. A burly African American man walked up to me and shook my hand and said, ”Doc you might not remember me, but you saved my mother’s life 3 months ago when she came to the hospital having a heart attack. I cannot thank you enough. I want you to know that she is doing great, thanks Doc!”

    Those few words made my day! With my chest held high, I thanked him. I wished him and his mother good luck and told him to contact my office if they need anything and walked out feeling so proud and satisfied.

    These are the things we live for. Forget money or fame. The fact that you saved a life and made a huge difference in someone’s life means everything to me.

  8. This is so true! I just got cursed at by a patient tonight. It’s not new. The patient wanted me to give him pain medications every single hour (which wasn’t indicated for his diagnosis) and so he cursed at me when I refused :-((

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