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My colleague’s bin bags of shame

Thankfully, the most embarrassing incident of my life will never be aired on these pages. It makes me curl my toes every time I think of it, which is often. We’re all only interested in medical stuff, and my embarrassing incident is not even vaguely medical. So I’m grateful that no one could give a toss about the story of the (perfectly understandable) late-night toilet/fiancée’s-parents’-bedroom-confusion incident. Professional cleaners can work wonders in any case.

Instead, we can analyse the most embarrassing incident in the career of a colleague of mine. This one makes me curl my toes too, and it wasn’t even me.

One of his patients died. She was ancient and a very old friend of the practice; so much of a friend that she had not spent seven consecutive days out of his (or his predecessor’s) consulting room for 40 years. She’d averaged 70 consultations per year for literally decades. It had been many, many years since he had given up trying to modify her consulting habits and instead resorted to the ‘get her in, give her a prescription, get her out’ tactics that meant they could get along reasonably amicably.

The week after her death, her relatives turned up.

‘We thought you might want these back, doctor,’ they said, as they delivered six bin bags of drugs over the reception desk. Examining the contents of said bags was one of the most mortifying experiences of my friend’s life. Six bin bags full of what we might politely call ‘sod off’ drugs (‘Right; here’s a prescription, now sod off!’): simple linctus, Sudafed, mouthwash, various topical NSAIDs, vitamins, homeopathic amounts of the type of antibiotics that we all know don’t work… Some had had a dose or two taken, the majority were untouched. Hundreds and hundreds of prescriptions that had been a total waste of time, from a pharmaceutical point of view.

My friend was moved, not only to examine his prescribing habits, but also to analyse just what the hell was going through the mind of his patient as she diligently collected all this crap (at the expense of you and me). What was she bloody well thinking?

Walking up the high street at lunchtime the other day, I heard one of my own patients waxing lyrical at the bus stop. Deaf old biddy that she is, and appalling self-centred monstrosity that she also undoubtedly is, I was able to lean against the bus stop unnoticed behind her and enjoy the show. She was telling her two friends, but also everyone within 20 yards, about the pains in her chestal area. I should judge that, by what she was broadcasting, no one has ever suffered to this extent. So she deserves a certain amount of sympathy, if not any actual treatment or drugs. I’d have been more concerned if I hadn’t been hearing exactly the same thing across the desk for literally 20 years.

When you apply to join a GP’s surgery, there is a form to fill out, and one of the questions is ‘Occupation?’ A lot of these patients write ‘housewife’ or ‘unemployed’. But a small but significant minority of them should, if they had a scintilla of honesty, write ‘patient’.

Dr Phil Peverley is a GP in Sunderland