For the most part, the patients I’ve encountered while in my third year of medical school have been awesome sports and truly willing to participate in our education process. Putting a face to the diseases I’ve only read about in our textbooks really solidifies information for me, and it makes a huge difference. It’s one thing to read about scleroderma, but it’s a totally other thing to meet someone with the autoimmune disease and see their response to certain medications and treatments day after day. Patients are our greatest teachers, and for them to go out of their way to tell us their unique stories about how they were diagnosed with neurofibromatosis or let massive groups of students listen to their heart murmur one after another, I am truly grateful.
Despite these positive experiences, I recently had a not so great interaction with a patient who was blatantly sexist and made sure to vocalize it. He had initially presented with aphasia (a language disorder) and wasn’t able to communicate well with us until we saw him on his second hospital day. I was working with a male intern, and while we were explaining our plan to him, he interrupted us out of the blue to say that he didn’t trust female doctors because he had had a bad experience with one several years ago.
I was stunned. It was not only the irrelevance of the comment but also the content of it that had taken me by surprise. I was pretty upset but bit my tongue as he kindly explained the differences between men and women and my inherent faults and his strengths because of our differences in chromosomes. When I disengaged eye contact with him, he called me out on it, and I actually felt so uncomfortable I had to excuse myself from the room.
Later, the intern and I debriefed the situation. He apologized profusely on the patient’s behalf, but he told me I would just have to get used to it. His wife who is also a resident and his other female colleagues constantly deal with similar comments, and unfortunately, that was just the way it is.
I’m certain that this experience is not unique, but it makes me wonder if there was a better way to react in this sort of situation if it happens again in the future. Would it have been out of line to say something like, “That is inappropriate and offensive. Can we focus on you and what we can do to help you?” What would you have done in this scenario?