Over the years, I've been fortunate in my doctors. They've always been competent, and they've mostly been personable. As I've grown older and more assertive, I've learned how to interact with doctors to get the kinds of explanations and follow-up care I need.
One phrase doctors use, however, really irritates me, and I know it's not just my doctors who use it because I read it all the time in questions on this website and other health care forums I belong to.
"It's nothing," the doctor says when looking a red blotch, examining a lump, surveying a painful throat, or poking at a painful spot.
I want to say, "What do you mean it's nothing? It's clearly red, (or lumpy, or painful, or whatever)."
What the doctor apparently means is "It's nothing you need to worry about," or "It's nothing that has a medical name," or "It's nothing I recognize."
Almost certainly doctors use this phrase thinking they are reassuring the patient that she isn't going to die tomorrow from this symptom. However, patients tend to interpret the doctor's words as, "You are wasting my time," or "You are so stupid that you don't even know what's happening in your own body," or "I don't have a clue, and I'm too uncaring or lazy to find out."
I'd like to see medical schools train doctors on better translations for "It's nothing."
Here are some suggestions.
"I feel the lump you're telling me about. I'm confident from your description and my examination that it is Lump A, a harmless type of lump you don't need to worry about. If it changes, please call me back, and I'll reassess my diagnosis."
"I'm sorry that this pain and itching is causing you so much discomfort. I don't see or feel any medical cause for it. I'm pretty sure it will go away on its own, but if it doesn't get better in two weeks, please call me back, and we'll do some tests and refer you to a specialist."
"I'm confident that this rash isn't dangerous, but I don't know for sure what is causing it, so I'd like to refer you to a dermatologist to get more information."
There you go. Three ways to say, "It's nothing," that preserve the dignity of the patient and make sure she will come back if the problem continues or gets worse.
Because I'm not in charge of medical education, it very likely your doctor will tell you, "It's nothing" sometime in the future. When that happens, speak up. Ask questions, "What are some possible causes for this pain, doctor?" Express your relief with a follow-up, "I'm so glad this isn't dangerous. What are some signs I should watch out for? How long should I wait before calling you back if it doesn't get better?" If you have a doctor who won't take the time to answer questions and help you understand what's happening in your body, maybe it's time for a new doctor.
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