14 Things to Avoid Saying in Hospital

January 2, 2018


On the Job


Dr. Ben Janaway

All of us will enter hospital at some point in our lives. Many of us will leave happy, but for some, the journey will be a long and arduous one.  And although healthcare staff are hardworking and understanding, they are only human. With any relationship, be it professional or patient to staff, there are unwritten rules. So how can you avoid getting on your doctor’s or nurse’s bad side?

We asked healthcare workers and scoured the data. Here is our list of taboo topics and risky remarks.

1: "Do you fancy a drink?"

Young man and female doctor speaking

Even if your doctor looks like George Clooney, he is there to work. In my experience, some light flirting from Muriel in bed 4A can be fun and foster a better relationship, but there are limits. Asking for a phone number or Facebook can come across odd and even aggressive.

'It is always important to maintain that professional line. Whilst flattering this sort of thing breaks that line and impairs our ability to treat patients.' – Alex, Nurse

2: "You look tired’’

Yes, we know. I’m 29 and look 40. Coffee and late nights do a lot. Although you may be showing understanding and empathy, we may be so strung out we hear nothing but criticism. And that’s on us!

‘Yes, we do look tired, but you try doing this!’ – Andrew, Doctor

3: "But my friend said this..."

Unless your friend is a qualified physician, Jeff’s meticulous Google search probably doesn’t apply. That’s not to say we get it right every time, and we will be happy to consider new information, but we don’t need to be lectured. Medicine is more complex than a search engine result.

I heartily encourage people to go out and do their own research. I will very happily sit there for hours if needed. But all too often this is uttered with the unflappable air of “I know better than you” What other job in the world is this acceptable in?’ – Alex, Nurse

4: "Can I go for a smoke?"

Listen buddy, we can prescribe nicotine patches. But for Cthulus sake, you are in hospital. We can’t stop you sneaking out, but tell a nurse where and when you will be back. And if you are using an oxygen tank… well, this isn’t a War Zone.

‘I don’t mind patients going for a smoke, it can help relieve stress during a stressful period but don’t then come back complaining of breathlessness and demanding analgesia, especially when you’ve come in with a chest infection’ – Chris, Nurse

5: "My son is a medical student…"

Man and woman looking at doctor

Okay, we were all medical students once. And your son may have a point, but remember he doesn’t have your test results, or bear responsibility for your treatment. We work in shades of grey and uncertainty that Chapter 5, p43 heading 1 doesn’t take account of.  Even if Jeff agrees.

Medical students are great, but they aren’t your doctor. They don’t have all the information, and looking back, overly speculate. They are learning the ropes, but haven’t spent enough time in the ring.’ – Andrew, Doctor

6: "You are just a nurse, what do you know?"

Any good doctor knows that an experienced nurse is more valuable than any textbook. Expertise is based on experience, and believe me, your nurse has seen more than any doctor. Nurses smell a problem way before we do, and without them I’m pretty safe in saying that things would be missed.

‘Always upsetting to hear as a nurse but often patients are simply scared and confused its only human nature. Part of the nurses role is to absorb this kind of abuse with good humour. Then we can work together to achieve the best outcome for them. That being said on the rare occasion this is meant in a derogatory way, well there is no helping some people.’ – Alex, Nurse

7: "Why do I have to wait so long?"

Hospitals are busy, and drugs are dangerous. Every medication is protected by safeguards, checks and balances that prevent misuse and harm. And these take time. We agree, we don’t want you waiting either, but in the trade-off between safety and another hour in bed, its pretty clear what’s better.

‘It’s annoying when people attend ED, wait two hours then come to the triage nurse and say “I’ll pop back tomorrow when it’s less busy.” No, we’re always busy’ – Chris, Nurse

"Can you get me a sneaky diazepam?"

Female doctor clutching her face, looking tired

Erm, hell no. If you need a drug, we will listen. But we aren’t here to get you addicted or give you a good time. There are cases where an anxiolytic may be therapeutic, but you are here to get better, not high.

'No! If it is part of your treatment or we think you need your medication amended or increased we will arrange this,  but these are dangerous medications and you are here to get better not get high.’- Alex, Nurse

8: "It’s probably nothing, I’m wasting your time"

You are never wasting our time, if you feel unwell, we are here to help. Yes, it may be nothing and you are worrying, but even then, let’s reassure you. The time wasters aren’t people like you, don’t worry.

‘If you asking this you’re not the kind of person who is! We are here to help and reassure and if all it takes is a bit of our time and a little chat I’m very happy to give you that’ - Alex, Nurse

9: "Well you are the doctor, how can you be unsure?"

Simply put, we are human. And medicine operates in a sea of uncertainty. There are things we know, and things we don’t. We diagnose and treat based on this knowledge, safeguarding against unknowns as best we can. But like any science, there is always more to know.

‘Sometimes being a doctor means taking the safest route. This can mean treating before a firm diagnosis is made. Sometimes its better to treat for the worst first.’ – Andrew, Doctor

10: "This hospital sucks, I’m going private"

Feel free, we could use the bed. We are all doing our best, but sometimes things may seem lacklustre or delayed. Mistakes happen. A genuine concern is totally fine and you should tell us your worry, but threatening to storm out because the coffee tastes bad isn’t cricket.

‘It always winds me up when a patient complains about silly things. We aren’t a hotel, and there are people dying. Stop complaining about the food.’ – Andrew, Doctor

11: "Yeah I saw this on TV"

*Audible groan* I will let you in on a little secret, TV medical dramas aren’t always right. Using a defibrillator isn’t magic, and usually doesn’t work. And not every cough is the first sign of Lupus. Although to be honest, I wouldn’t mind looking like Patrick Dempsey.

‘TV medicine and real medicine are often very unrelated. Sadly we don’t all look like George Clooney and things rarely line up as neatly or have so many happy endings as they do on tv and sadly we don’t have a magic wand’ – Alex, Nurse

12: "You look too young to be a doctor"

Young female doctor speaking with man

Okay, this one isn’t as bad. But it may be taken as undermining our experience. Some of us are blessed with the genes to look perpetually 25, but it doesn’t mean we are incompetent. We all passed the same exams! So if we look young, don’t worry, we are all just as old at heart.

‘People worry that being young means being wrong. But doctors always work  as a team, and some are lucky enough to look their age. Most, after years of coffee, look a little more worse for wear.’ – Andrew, Doctor

13: "%#&$ YOU!"

We get it, hospitals are hard places to be. And you may be unhappy, in pain, fed up or just bored. But if you abuse us, offend us, we can’t do our jobs properly and can’t help you as we should. You wouldn’t put up with it either.

‘Swear at me all you like all it does is put your health at risk. Staff don’t have to treat people who could cause them harm, further more you’ll likely end up being booted out the hospital untreated.’ – Chris, Nurse

14: "By the way..."

It is infuriating, and often unsafe, to hold information back. You may have a good reason to, but omitting information that could help us treat you is a no-no.  The classic is the patient walking out the door commenting that they have actually been peeing blood for 3 weeks. Tell us everything early!!!

This happens a lot, and can be dangerous. I have had patients tell me quite worrying things that may have affected their treatment.’ Andrew, Doctor

So, that’s our list. Simply put, treat us as you would want to be treated. Remember that we are doing our best, and don’t be scared to ask us questions. But at the same time, realise that doctors and other staff are experienced professionals, working for you. If you have a genuine concern just tell us and we will do our best.

Dr. Ben Janaway

Dr Ben Janaway is a strong advocate for humanism and has interest in public health education, science communication and political activism. He graduated from the University of Sheffield in 2014 with degrees in Medicine and Neuropathology. He writes about legal rights for healthcare workers and for medical journals. His work has been published internationally in The Independent and The Guardian and he has been interviewed on national news including the BBC on issues affecting the NHS.