Superstitious Doctors–Part I

“Wow, it sure is quiet today.”

No phrase is more likely to strike terror in the heart of a physician than that innocent comment, made by a patient, a nurse, or, even worse, another physician. Saying a shift is “quiet” is believed by many in health care to be the surest way to bring destruction on your head.

Most patients don’t know it, but there is no breed of human more superstitious than a doctor doing shift-work. Perhaps it is the randomness of being on-call. Some days are an out-of-control, taking the corners-on-two-wheels disaster, narrowly avoiding endless crisis after crisis like a really bad computer game where no one gets extra lives. In contrast, some days are…well, let’s not use the Q word.

The healthcare superstitions most people know about are the ones we get from television—full moon, Saturday night stuff.

Medical superstitions are an openly joked about (but still practiced) fact of life among medical professionals. Besides the Q-word, there are many others.

Never buy a Sunday paper if you’re going into the hospital to be on call. Some people extend the Sunday-paper ban to all reading material. No novels. No magazines.

And, God help you, no television. There is no surer way to get a frantic call about a patient than to flip on a channel and sit back. Superstitions evolve to keep up with technology. No laptops, no email. No I-pods. For God’s sake, don’t ever bring a DVD player in here.

Perhaps you scoff. You don’t believe there are adults, sitting and staring for hours at blank walls in small, airless hospital rooms, hoping that, by doing so, they will keep someone from calling them. To be blunt, they are, actually, well, doing nothing, in the belief that, by doing so, they actually can keep patients from getting sicker, or from even showing up.

I hate to tell you, but it’s true. It’s happening in hospitals all across America. Probably overseas too.

And it only gets weirder. There are definitely docs who will only wear certain articles of clothing while on call—to keep “badness” away. There are, of course, lucky socks. There are also, predictably, lucky stethoscopes, lucky pagers and lucky call rooms.

Some people even take things a step further. You can be labeled “bad luck” as a whole human being. In medicine, it’s called having a “black cloud.” If you have a black cloud, people groan when they hear you’re on-call with them. Others, with better luck, get labeled as having a “white cloud.” No one knows for sure where the phrase came from, but probably it refers to the fact that dark/black clouds can mean that it’s going to rain. With a black cloud doctor on the horizon, everyone knows patients will be pouring in like rain.

Here’s the even weirder thing doctors do—doctors can spend lots of energy trying to figure out how to change their “cloud.” Do they only have a black cloud when they’re doing a surgery rotation? Are they sure to have a white cloud, except when they have to work with a certain person?

Isn’t this bizarre? These are supposedly scientific people A horrifying fact is that these are the people you must trust to act rationally if they are answering your call for medical help.

I know what you’re thinking—oh, God, why did Doc Gurley tell me this? After all, what can you do with this information? You really didn’t want to know doctors could be this weird, did you? How are you going to know who’s superstitious? What’s a potential patient supposed to do with this knowledge? Besides panic, that is. When you have to go to the emergency room, should you just cross your fingers and hope for…luck? For help and more information, see the post “Superstitious Doctors–Part II.”

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