18 'Harmless' Comments Doctors Said That Actually Hurt Their Patients
Of course, there are many doctors out there who are helpful, kind and respectful of their patients with chronic illnesses. But when you have a condition that can’t be easily ‘figured out’ or treated, some doctors don’t handle the situation with the most grace or sensitivity. While some doctors may believe they are giving helpful advice, they may not realize they’re not truly addressing their patient’s concerns, or how much a “harmless” comment (from their point of view) about something like the patient’s weight, age or mental health can be hurtful.
If doctors don’t know better, they can’t do better — so we wanted to create a list of comments our Mighty community members have heard that, while they may have seemed harmless to the doctor, or to others who don’t have chronic illness, were actually harmful to their patients. A single comment from a doctor can stick with a patient for years and even change the course of their treatment or how they view their own health, so it’s important that doctors understand which “offhand” comments may be damaging to their patients. Let us know what you would add in the comments.
Here’s what our community shared with us:
1. “Don’t let it stop you from living your life!”
“‘There isn’t anything physical causing your pain/symptoms so it isn’t going to hurt you so don’t let it stop you.’ This made me feel as if my pain isn’t real just because there is no physical reason for it.” — Caitlin S.
2. “There’s no treatment for that, so why do you want a diagnosis?”
“I asked my pain management specialist about getting diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. Her response…’Why would you want a diagnosis of that? It’s not like it can be treated.’ I was literally in such a state of shock that I left the office and didn’t get upset about it until I made it home.” — Julie C.
3. “You’re just going to have to learn to live with it.”
“‘You’re going to live for probably 50 more years. Maybe this is just how it’s going to be.’ I was having trouble with a medication. I quit taking it and felt much better. Don’t have to live like that!” — Megan M.
“‘You need to just stop going to doctors and get back to living a normal life.’ Oh gee why didn’t I think of that. It’s a good thing I didn’t listen to her either, because my neck was dangerously unstable at the time and I desperately needed surgery. It’s almost like she felt I was choosing to be sick and to have these symptoms.” — Mahala H.
4. “You’re probably just depressed/anxious/stressed.”
“When I was about 19 and the pain was worse than it had ever been, my doctor looked at me and asked, ‘Are you depressed?’ He wasn’t asking sincerely; he was implying that my pain was psychosomatic. My response was pretty flip and something along the lines of ‘Of course I’m (expletive) depressed. I’m 19 and I can barely leave my house. I can’t sit through a movie. I can barely get out of bed! Of course I’m (expletive) depressed!’” — Megan M.
“I had a medical doctor draw me a triangle on a piece of scrap paper and write three points of trauma from my history on each corner. He then told me I wouldn’t stop throwing up until I addressed those traumas. I was too shocked and embarrassed to advocate for myself but I knew he was wrong. I’ve kept that piece of paper and I’ve never seen that doctor again.” — Emma A.
“After just meeting me for the first time, a rheumatologist said my actual problem was that I’m just fat and depressed. She didn’t care to listen to me, check my test results, or take my pain seriously. (I’d been previously diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis by a different rheum and was going to her for treatment options.)” — Chaylee B.
5. “Just lose some weight.”
“To join a gym for my fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome. As if that would help. As if joining a gym would magically solve all of my pain and fatigue.” — Alexandria B.
“‘Your knees won’t swell and hurt if you just lose weight.’ This was said by a doctor who knows I have a condition that causes weight gain and inability to lose weight. I haven’t been back to her since.” — Hanna R.
6. “You’ll grow out of it.”
“Despite painful and infrequent periods as a teenager, being told ‘You’ll grow out of it.’ I didn’t… pre-cancerous growths on uterus and endometriosis. Total hysterectomy at 31. If this GP wasn’t so arrogant and ignorant of female problems my life could have been so different.” — Clare H.
7. “You need a vacation.”
“‘You really need a vacation to Hawaii, and at your next appointment, you and I are going to race up the four flights of stairs to my office.’ Said by my local neurologist who I have since just stopped going to. I have hip dysplasia, a torn labrum, inflamed bursas, neuropathy, severed nerves in my left leg, a pacemaker, my heart rate shoots to over 160 from just a shower or doing dishes, and I can’t recall the last time I kept a meal down. But four flights of stairs. A race. OK. Clearly, he believes this is all in my head.” — Jennifer C.
8. “At least you’ll be able to [insert ‘trick’].”
“My son has a nonfunctional arm. When seeing the doc who did nerve transplant years ago, the doc said my son could get function to the elbow, but he doubts the hand [could]. Then he said, ‘At least you’ll be able to hang things on your arm.’ My son was so upset by this insensitive comment.” — Chris P.
“I was told my daughter’s hypermobility was a gift — that she would be an amazing dancer or gymnast.” — Jocelyn I.
“My son has a pectis excavatum (his sternum is caved in so he has like a hole in his chest). It makes his ribs stick out really far. He was messing around at the specialist’s office, sucking his stomach in, and the doctor said, ‘Oh yeah, the girls are gonna find that real cool some day, buddy…’ He is 6 and never worried about looking weird to someone and after that comment which was meant as a joke he came to me and said ‘Mom, do you think kids are going to make fun of me for my hole?’ It broke my heart.”
9. “Your tests came back fine, so there’s nothing wrong with you.”
“‘It’s all in your head, the scans show there’s nothing wrong.’” — Alice J.
“When I said that my medicine is not helping any of my symptoms and I was told, ‘Well, your numbers are fine. That’s just the Hashi’s [Hashimoto’s thyroiditis] and you’re going to have to learn to live with it.’” — Desiree C.
“‘Looks like your levels are all normal! Have a great weekend!’” — Shari S.
10. “You’re too young for that/You’re too old for that.”
“‘It’s not like you’re having heart palpitations…you’re too young.’ (I actually was having heart palpitations, but this cardiologist wouldn’t let me talk! Luckily my primary doctor found they were due to extremely low magnesium levels).” — Laurie F.
“[A doctor said] I am too young too need narcotic pain medication to help with congenital hip dysplasia which causes a lot of pain. That it’s not normal for someone as young as me to need pain medication.” — Allie L.
“I asked my GYN why my periods were irregular. She said I was ‘getting old.’ The last thing I needed to hear as a chronically ill person was how old I was getting. It seems insignificant to most people but it bothered me.” — Misty A.
11. “At least you’re not dying.”
“I had a colon resection. I have had nothing but problems since the surgery. My GI is having a hard time figuring out the problem… At my last appointment he says, ‘This really is a mystery, Mindy. I guess one way to look at things is, at least you’re not dying here!’ Um, are you kidding me! Most of the time it feels like I am. Meanwhile, my weight is freefalling, I can barely eat, I have numbness on one side of my body and face just to name a few. But hey, at least I’m not dying. Awesome, thanks so much!” — Mindy L.
12. “You’re making excuses.”
“[A doctor said] ‘It sounds like you’re making excuses.’ I think this was probably what hurt me the most out of all my interactions with her. I was trying to explain why changes aren’t that easy to implement and why it takes time and training and basically rewiring my whole entire brain, body, and soul to make the changes I needed to for my health. But nah, I’m just making excuses cause I’m a lazy fat girl who wants to feel like crap all the time.” — Lily S.
13. “You just need to eat more.”
“‘You just need to eat more.’ — a doctor that told me the reason I was sick was because I was too skinny. I’m naturally skinny because my body doesn’t digest foods well which leads to sickness.” — Jenni J.
14. “There’s nothing that can be done.”
“‘You’re a young mom who needs to learn how to cope. Your body is responding to the stress. There’s nothing to be done. Just take a lot of Pepto.’ Seven years later and I’m no longer a young mom and still having horrible symptoms. Made me feel like I was crazy.” — Jacqueline B.
15. “You need to pray.”
“‘Are you a praying woman? Because I think you need to start.’ I was suffering from depression because of my diagnosis. I’m an atheist.” — Bailey S.
“When a gynecologist after the visit first told me probably I had endometriosis and told me to make some more exams, I asked her what can I take to relieve the pain or if there was anything I could do in the meanwhile. She said to me, ‘Nothing! Pray to Our Lady if you want!’ OK maybe for someone who believes and is religious that’s nothing offensive or bothering, but for me it was a very frustrating phrase. First of all she didn’t know if I am Catholic or not, second it was as if to say, there’s no hope or anything you can do to fight this disease.” — Paola P.
16. “You have children so of course you’re tired.”
“One charming GP told me ‘Of course you’re fatigued, three kids under 4, go home and give your husband what he deserves.’ How helpful.” — Judy B.
17. “Don’t go home and Google.”
“‘So what condition have you decided to Google today?’” — Jade W.
18. “You don’t look sick!”
“‘You don’t look sick’ when she heard I had ovarian cancer. I know she was meaning it as a compliment, but she of all people should know that not all illnesses are visible.” — Phyllis E.
“‘It’s such a shame you have so much pain because you are so pretty.’ I didn’t have any words for such a useless, ignorant and unhelpful comment. My pain and my disease of colitis has zero basis on my outer appearance. What made me more sad was in that moment, I lost respect for this specialist. It said to me, rather than say she doesn’t know, she chose to show me her circle of knowledge ended right there. And that she was not interested in furthering her circle of knowledge.” — Amy V.
For advice about making the most out of doctor’s appointments, from other people with chronic illnesses, check out these stories:
5 Survival Tips for Dealing With Doctor’s Appointments
15 Essentials You Should Bring to Every Doctor Appointment