Why patient shaming by doctors is dangerous and can be medical malpractice

Have you ever experienced a doctor who didn’t believe you, or at least didn’t seem interested in what you were trying to say?

This is a phenomenon called patient shaming, and it’s extremely dangerous to patient safety. I can’t tell you how many times, in my practice as a Houston, Texas medical malpractice lawyer, I’ve had clients share stories about how this happened to them, causing serious injuries.

Some symptoms that are commonly patient shamed

Patient shaming is where the doctor makes you feel that your medical complaints are a waste of time and medical resources. The doctor makes you feel pathetic for taking up her time, when she could be busy taking care of patients who really need help.

While this can happen to someone with any type of health problem, I’ve seen it most commonly when patient complaints involve symptoms that are nonspecific—meaning that they could be caused by any one of several conditions, but most often from something that won’t cause long-term problems and will go away on its own.

Take for example stroke. Some patients getting ready to have a stroke, or even in early stroke, may mimic someone having a migraine headache. That’s what happened to a young, healthy client of mine who had no history of migraines. He went to an emergency room (ER) three days in a row and each time was sent home with the diagnosis of migraine headache and a different pain medication.

The only problem is that all the providers who checked him out, including ER physicians, a nurse practitioner, and even a neurologist, were wrong. They took patient shaming to a new level, though, when the ER doctor told my client and his wife that they needed to go home because someone else needed his bed. He went home, had a stroke a few hours later, and will never be the same.

Another young client had a similar experience when an ambulance brought her to the ER at a comprehensive stroke center hospital in the Texas Medical Center. She was young and black, and the ambulance crew thought she might have been partying too much. I’m not sure how they thought that could’ve played into her suddenly slumping over on the couch, one-sided facial droop, and slurred speech—all textbook stroke symptoms.

My client was seen by a neurology resident (a doctor still early in his training), who concluded that she was experiencing some anxiety. An attending neurologist (one who’s completed medical training) from the stroke team never saw her, and she was discharged with an insulting diagnosis of exclusion:  psychogenic reaction, which literally means “it’s all in your head.”

She later went to another stroke center hospital, where she was immediately diagnosed with a massive stroke. By then, though, it was too late for the clot-busting drug tPA to work. She’s now left with significant, lifelong deficits and impairments.

Another type of complaint that doctors tend to patient shame people out the door is severe abdominal pain. A middle-aged lady went to an ER because she had severe abdominal pain. She had never suffered from this or constipation before, but after the doctor ran a few tests that came back normal, he discharged her with the diagnosis of constipation.

The doctor patient shamed her for coming to the hospital, causing her to feel embarrassed. Four days later, she had no choice but to return to the hospital. By then, she had uncontrollable pain, nausea, and vomiting. On this encounter, another doctor saw her, ordered a CT scan and found a ruptured bowel. For days her bowel contents had been leaking into her abdomen, causing a smoldering infection and sepsis. She almost died.

What you can do

If you interact with a doctor that patient shames, I recommend one of two things. If you’re at the doctor’s office, get up and leave and find a new doctor. If you’re at a hospital, demand to see another physician (an attending physician, who’s fully trained) who will listen to you and give a second opinion.

Be empowered. Remember that it’s your body and you’ll know more about what you’re feeling and experiencing than the doctors and nurses ever will. Don’t let them cheat you out of the proper care that you’re entitled to by patient shaming.

If you’ve been seriously injured by patient shaming or any other type of medical error, then contact a top-rated experienced Houston, Texas medical malpractice attorney for help in evaluating your potential case.

Robert Painter
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Robert Painter

Robert Painter is an award-winning medical malpractice attorney at Painter Law Firm Medical Malpractice Attorneys in Houston, Texas. He is a former hospital administrator who represents patients and family members in medical negligence and wrongful death lawsuits all over Texas. Contact him for a free consultation and strategy session by calling 281-580-8800 or emailing him right now.