not all doctors

I am sat nervously in the corridor waiting for my name to be called. The hard metal chair is digging into every inch of my spine. The other chairs are presumably doing the same to the spine of every other woman sat here, but we do not shift in our seats, we just smile politely at each other. We are all early for our appointments, and all of our appointments have been delayed. Each of us has been sat on an uncomfortable metal chair for over 20 minutes. I shift in my seat to ease my back, but this screeches out and echoes around the room. Another woman enters the room soon after me and does the same. Nobody shifts more than once. Nobody wants to cause a fuss. And so we sit, spines aching, not complaining, not saying anything. Not making a fuss. 


We have all learned to not make a fuss.


I am dressed smartly and conservatively. I am wearing make-up and my hair is done; it is important to be dressed like a standard issue woman if you want to be taken seriously. Underneath this shirt and skirt is a feminist, I promise, but for now I am a standard issue woman. I must appear middle class – not so poor as to render my opinions worthless, and not so posh as to be written off as hysterical. I must appear well groomed - enough to prove I am not simply neglecting my body and causing all of this, but not so well-groomed that I look too well. I must speak clearly and in received pronunciation. My voice should be steady and measured, but not without emotion. I should convey my problems calmly whilst still hitting home just how terrible I feel. I should walk this tightrope whilst maintaining eye contact to prove I am being truthful. 


I must be gracious for whatever they say in that room, even if what they say makes me want to burn it to the ground. I must not be rude even when they call me too fat or lazy or a liar. All of my medical letters praise my politeness, my punctuality and my compliance. I will do whatever they say, and I will do it with a smile. Inside a consulting room I am unrecognisable. Because inside a consulting room, I play the game. 


The recent hashtag #doctorsaredickheads caused quite a stir on Twitter. Many labelled it insensitive and called for it to be removed on the grounds that it promoted bullying and disrespect. The thread even birthed a second, reactive hashtag #doctorsarehuman, used by people to defend the medical profession. But this felt unnecessary to me. Nobody was saying that all doctors are bad, they were simply sharing countless examples of when doctors had let them down. Patterns began to emerge; this was not just individual cases of poor treatment, but a systemic failure to recognise and treat certain conditions and patient groups. The idea that we cannot criticise people simply because they chose an admirable profession is a dangerous one.


I hold no ill-feeling towards the nurse that messed up a family members’ discharge, after what I can only assume was a horrendous night shift. I don’t blame the doctor who put me on the wrong medication at the instruction of a consultant. I don’t blame the consultant. I blame the sighs, the smirks between colleagues, the constant insistence that it was all in my head. Those things are not human error, they are human insensitivity.  


What the hashtag really was, was an outpouring of stories from people who have been gaslighted, manipulated and let down by the healthcare system. A bubbling, boiling swell of rage and fear and sadness at the way people have been treated time and time again, by professionals who are meant to help them. The stories were enraging and heart-breaking. The relationship many of us have had, and continue to have, with the healthcare system reads like that of an emotionally abusive relationship.


Echoing the clamour of not all men to scream “not all men”, so too did many doctors scrabble to attest their innocence and the fact that they are not dickheads. These doctors listen to their patients, advocate for their rights, hold their hands. They also miss the point. I am all for doctors reading these stories, learning from them, informing their future work, recognising the shortcomings in their own practice, and that of their colleagues. But this was not a space for doctors to speak. 


This hashtag was not for doctors. It was for the people who have been sat on the other side of that desk, on the receiving end of that eye roll, underneath that blanket. Maybe the word dickhead felt unnecessary, but I have certainly called doctors far worse, sobbing on the other side of that door. 

Abbey Stanford