If your doctor asks you to say 'Ahhh' during a pelvic exam, it may be a sign of physician fatigue

If your doctor asks you to say 'Ahhh' during a pelvic exam, it may be a sign of physician fatigue
When doctors make mistakes, it could be a sign of fatigue. Doctors share some of their bloopers in a new report. (Taxi Japan via Getty Images)

In the future, when robots are our doctors and we find ourselves describing our symptoms to an online portal, we’ll miss the foibles of the physicians who once cared for us. But until then, we can still laugh at the very funny things that our very human doctors sometimes say and do when they’re exhausted, distracted or overwhelmed by the demands of modern-day medicine.

Like, for instance, when the doctor called a patient to break the news that she had chlamydia — a sexually transmitted disease — and signed off with a cheery “Bye! Love you!”


Or when a doctor intent on conducting a skin-cancer check told a man to take his pants off. Then, without explanation, she said she’d need to fetch a magnifying glass.

Not something an anxious male patient wants to hear.

These and a choice selection of acknowledged “Doctor fails” are recounted in this year’s BMJ Christmas issue. By longstanding tradition, the holiday edition of the medical journal is given over to studies and essays that probe medicine’s lighter side.

The funny stories doctors tell on themselves are real. They’re drawn from the growing number of blogs and social media forums frequented by doctors, and were curated by a high-powered team led by UC San Francisco dermatologist Dr. Eleni Linos.

In many cases, physicians chalked up their own awkward and embarrassing incidents to fatigue or long work hours. And the authors of the report dutifully observe that “doctor fatigue is no laughing matter” — it leads to dangerous medical errors and doctor burnout, they wrote.

But when it causes a doctor to ask a blind man whether he’s ever sleepy while driving, or to respond to a drive-through greeting with, “I was paged”— well, you just have to laugh.

Want more? You’re in luck.

Knock knock. Who’s there?

Even when a room’s occupant is believed to be deceased, it’s hard for a hospital-based physician to break the habit of announcing his or her impending entry.

“I sometimes get asked to go confirm death on a patient with no family present before they call family to inform,” reported one hospice physician. “I knock on the door.”

Other doctors reported knocking on their own office doors, or on the bathroom door — on their way out.

Word salads

Other ingrained doctor habits play themselves out in odd places. One weary surgeon waiting in line to order lunch opened his or her mouth to ask for lettuce and tomato on a sandwich. Instead, out tumbled a list of surgery’s risks: “bleeding, infection ...”

When a doctor has been on duty for days at a time, words that sound alike also have a way of switching places.

“I've asked someone if ‘diarrhea runs in your family?’ I meant to say diabetes,” one doctor confessed in an online forum. Another admitted to getting tongue-tied when trying to say, “I have a lot of success using x medication.” Instead, the doctor told the patient, “I have a lot of sex.”

Good to know, right?


Another doctor thought he’d delight a young Spanish-speaking patient by identifying the cute rubber duck attached to his stethoscope. Apparently, he remembered even less of his high school Spanish than he did his organic chemistry.

“Look — puta!” he said brightly, using the Spanish word for “whore.”

Without necessarily intending it, other doctors’ malapropisms are more on-target. One doctor, mindful of the high cost of prescription drugs, suggested a patient with erectile dysfunction start with the free trial pack. It’ll give “more bang for your buck,” the doctor offered.

Gross anatomy

And no matter how routine the task, body parts do get mixed up. There’s the gynecologist getting ready to perform a breast exam who asks a patient to put her legs above her head (rather than her arms). There’s the doctor who announces she’s about to look in your nose, and then pokes an otoscope in your ear.

And then there are moments when routine procedures — and the instructions that come with them — get crossed:

“I just put the stethoscope on a man’s back, and instead of saying ‘deep breath,” I said ‘Hello,’ like I was answering the phone,” one doctor reported. (Sympathetic colleagues suggested breaking into the song made famous by Adele.)

And finally this: “My colleague once put a speculum in for a pap exam and told patient to say 'Ahhh'.”

Are you a doctor? A patient? Please share your funniest “doctors-are-human-too” stories in the comments section!