Ask the Doctors

Dear Doctor: My doctor recently made such an insensitive remark to me about my dog's death that I still haven't gotten over it. This is the clinic most accessible to me, and it won't let me change doctors. Do I even bother to bring this up at my next appointment, or just try to forget about it?

Dear Reader: I can understand why you would be upset. The relationship humans have with dogs is one of simple love, without the degree of complexity that isolates humans from one another. Because I have experienced the death of a dog, I know that it can be like losing a family member.

Your doctor, however, may not have had that experience, may never even have had a dog, may be indifferent to dogs or may just plain dislike them. We don't know. Nor do we know exactly what he or she was thinking at the time of the appointment. Clearly, however, your doctor could have done a better job of acknowledging your suffering.

But keep in mind, if you can, that your doctor has many patients and must give attention to each one of them. This includes not just listening, but getting a thorough history of the current problem, making an accurate diagnosis and providing an appropriate treatment. Then there are the other duties: taking phone calls from patients, refilling medications and ensuring documentation on electronic medical records.

Also, like everyone, doctors' personal lives can intrude on their professional lives. Like their patients, doctors suffer from the maladies of life, including coping with the illnesses of loved ones and maybe even their own health problems.

What I know from working with doctors over the last 20 years is that most are good-intentioned -- but not perfect. We try to be. But we do make mistakes sometimes in dealing with people. Although it's difficult to admit that we could have done better, we nonetheless want to know how to do so next time.

In my own practice on occasion, a patient has confronted me when they thought that I hadn't listened to their problems appropriately. I've had to swallow my pride at these times, stay calm and realize that I could have done better. This isn't easy in any profession, but it's critical in the doctor-patient relationship: We have to keep the lines of communication open.

My recommendation is to talk to your doctor about how much your dog meant to you. I would stress how long you had your dog, how it was a source of comfort and how in many ways your dog made your house feel much more like a home.

We can only hope that your doctor will understand and sympathize with your loss. If he or she doesn't, take a step back and look at the relationship overall. If this is an isolated event, try not to focus on the reaction to your dog's death.

If this isn't an isolated event, and you feel that the relationship between you and your doctor is strained, you should consider finding a new primary doctor. You may need to travel farther, but it may be worth the trouble. After all, a good doctor-patient relationship starts with good communication.

(Send your questions to askthedoctors@mednet.ucla.edu, or write: Ask the Doctors, c/o Media Relations, UCLA Health, 924 Westwood Blvd., Suite 350, Los Angeles, CA, 90095. Owing to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.)

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