Being sick is enough to make anyone cranky, but you may want to think twice before you take it out on your doctor. Aside from violating the “don’t be a jerk” clause of the social contract, it might come around to bite you later on, because doctors are more likely to misdiagnose rude patients. At least, that’s what two studies from the Netherlands have suggested — as if you needed a reminder to be nice to the person potentially holding your life in their hands.
Published in this month’s issues of BMJ Quality & Safety, the studies looked at two aspects of difficult patients: Whether their rudeness disrupts the accuracy of diagnoses, and why it does so. According to Vox, researchers in the first study created descriptions of six cases ranging from diagnostically simple to difficult. Three versions involved neutral patients, but the other three described “difficult” patients who were aggressive, questioned their doctor’s abilities, or other similarly jerk-y behaviors. Researchers then asked 63 residents to diagnose the patients, and the results showed a startling difference in the accuracy of the diagnoses.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, doctors were more accurate across the board with simpler cases, but even then, doctors with difficult patients were six percent more likely to make mistakes than those presented with neutral ones. When it came to more complex diagnoses, doctors with disagreeable patients made42 percent more mistakes.
The second study was similar in that doctors were presented with identical hypothetical situations save for the patient’s demeanor, and again, doctors were less accurate when their patients were difficult. This time, however, doctors were asked to recall details about the case afterward. Here’s where it gets interesting: Doctors who treated jerks were less likely to remember clinical details about the patient and more likely to remember their behaviors.
“Difficult patients’ behaviors induce doctors to make diagnostic errors, apparently because doctors spend part of their mental resources on dealing with the difficult patients’ behaviors, impeding adequate processing of clinical findings,” researchers concluded. In short, they were so busy focusing on dealing with a difficult patient that they couldn’t fully focus on the medical side of things, which may have led to errors in the diagnosis.
Of course, rude patients deserve the same level of care as everyone else, even if they are jerks, and researchers recommended that doctors make an effort to counteract the problem. On the other hand, there’s a pretty easy solution on the patients’ side of things as well: Treat everyone, including your doctor, with respect.