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Most clinical doctors know that seeing a patient won’t always go as planned. Often, the appointment goes smoothly until the doctor is wrapping up the conversation and getting ready to leave the office. This is when patients very commonly mention something unexpected, such as an embarrassing symptom or a comment about another sensitive topic, such as a symptom that could indicate a serious condition. Typically, it’s easy to tell that a patient was on the fence between mentioning it at all or leaving it unsaid. As a physician, it’s your job to determine what to do with the information that is shared. 

Doctors start their day with a busy schedule, and these “exit lines” can undoubtedly lead to an appointment lasting longer than expected. However, it’s important to remember that the patient in front of you is the priority while you’re in the room. They aren’t maliciously trying to prolong their appointment, and their statement could likely be a serious concern. For example, between 45 and 50 percent of people visited their primary care physician within a month of committing suicide. If someone mentions symptoms related to depression, that is worth an extra few minutes of your time.

Depending on what complaint the patient mentions, you may decide to refer them to a specialist, order tests, or just perform a short examination. The worst thing you can do is make any patient feel like they aren’t important and their concerns aren’t being taken seriously. 

At the very least, show gratitude for their willingness to disclose the information with you, but suggest that it would be best to schedule another appointment so you have time to discuss the issue in more detail. This may be the best course of action when treating patients who are notoriously dramatic about their symptoms or have a pattern of prolonging appointments, but that doesn’t mean their concerns should be written off. 

As a medical provider, try to leave a few extra minutes at the end of each appointment as a buffer for those last-minute questions and complaints. As a patient, be considerate of your doctor’s time and bring up any important symptoms as early as you can so they can be folded into the time allotted for your appointment. Some things can be hard to say out loud, but medical professionals are specially trained to diagnose and treat ailments that the average person may find embarrassing or frightening. If you’re on the fence about mentioning something, it’s best to ask your doctor instead of wishing you had.