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The Physician's Story: A Camberwell Tale By: Rick Heller
FrontPageMagazine.com | Tuesday, May 20, 2003

Here in Camberwell, we like to think of our town as New England's most progressive community.  In other parts of America, patients' confidential medical records are protected from prying eyes.  But in Camberwell, we protect them from the patients themselves.
"Breathe deeply," Dr. Renson said as he placed the cold metal of a stethoscope on Mark Talenger's naked back. 
Mark breathed in, and then coughed. 
"Now, Mr. Talenger," Dr. Renson asked, "what makes you think you have SARS?"
Mark covered his mouth and coughed again.  "I was at a conference in Detroit on global warming."  Mark cleared his throat.  "After I returned to Camberwell, I became sick, and I remembered that during the session on hydrogen-powered vehicles, I sat next to a woman from Toronto." 
Dr. Renson removed the stethoscope from his ears and wrapped it around his neck.  "It looks to me like you have a cold--the common variety, nothing so exotic as SARS.  Just take it easy for a few days and drink lots of liquids."
Mark breathed a sigh of relief, followed by a cough. 
"But I am interested in this mole you have on your upper back," Dr. Renson said.  "Do you know if it's changed at all?"
"I didn't even know I had one," Mark said.
"Would you mind if I removed it?" Dr. Renson asked. 
"Will it hurt?"
"It will feel like a pinch."
"Go ahead."
Mark felt a pinprick on his back.  It was over quickly, and Dr. Renson covered the wound with a bandage. 
"I'd like to send this sample to the lab," Dr. Renson said.
Mark swallowed hard, and winced because of his sore throat.  "The lab?  Might it be cancer?"
"Unlikely," Dr. Renson said.  "It's a routine precaution."
A few days later, when Mark checked his voice mail, there was a message from the doctor's office.  They wanted him to call.
Mark immediately picked up the phone.  As it was after hours, he reached the answering service.
"I'm a patient of Dr. Renson's, Mark Talenger.  I was supposed to call. Do you have any information for me?"
"No," the operator said.  "Would you like me to page the doctor on call who is covering for Dr. Renson?"
"Please," Mark said.
While Mark waited for the doctor's call, he reflected on the fact that message didn't give an indication of how the test came out.  Most likely, it was because there was bad news.  Mark wondered if a case of melanoma was his reward for all the youthful summer days he'd spent on Nauset Beach on the Cape.
The phone rang only once before Mark picked up the receiver.  A woman with a soft voice identified herself as Dr. Carelli.
"Thanks for calling back, Dr. Carelli," Mark said.  "Did Dr. Renson leave you any information about my case?"
"Your name did not come up," Dr. Carelli said.
"Can you look me up?"
"I don't have access to your chart.  The best thing to do would be to call back tomorrow during office hours."  
The next morning, Mark decided to go to work late, because he'd rather hear the bad news in the privacy of his own home.  At 9:03 AM, he called Dr. Renson's office.  After negotiating through a vast menu of selections, he finally got through to a medical assistant. 
"This is Mark Talenger.  I had a message on my voice mail to call, but it didn't go into any detail about my condition."
"We never leave confidential information on answering machines," the medical assistant said.  "We wouldn't want members of a patient's family knowing the patient's confidential information."
"So tell me now," Mark said.
"You'll have to come into the office," the medical assistant said.
"Come in?"  That meant he needed follow-up treatment.  At least most skin cancers were curable, Mark thought.  But if not?  Mark briefly considered whether cremation, though obviously a source of air pollution, might not be more environmentally friendly than burial, which wasted a plot of good topsoil.
"I have skin cancer, don't I?" Mark said. 
The medical assistant said, "It's against our policy to divulge patient information over the phone."
"But I'm the patient!" Mark replied.
"How do I know it's really you? You could be anybody who's had access to Mr. Talenger's answering machine." 
"All right.  Could you email me the results?"
"To protect your privacy, we only email patient information in an encrypted form within our internal network.  You'll have to come in.  But you're in luck.  I have a cancellation at 3:30 PM tomorrow."
Mark made the appointment, though it conflicted with his talk at the Camberwell Center for Environmental Initiatives.  He called CCEI to cancel, feeling guilty that he was placing his own health ahead of that of the planet's.
Mark spent a restless night, wondering whether he should mention his parents in his will or leave all his savings to his nephew and two nieces.  He hoped that cancer wouldn't prevent him from being an organ donor.
At 3:30 the following day, Mark was shown into an examining room.  While waiting for the doctor, he unbuttoned and removed his blue and white checked shirt.  He also removed his pants, so the doctor could determine if the malignancy had spread. 
Dr. Renson's first words were "You can put your clothes back on."
"You don't want another look?" Mark asked. 
"No need," Dr. Renson said.  "You're fine."
"The lesion was benign."
"Why couldn't they tell me that over the phone?  "
"Privacy is our highest priority," Dr. Renson said.
"I thought I was dying."
Dr. Renson smiled. "Aren't you glad you're not?"
Mark sat on the exam table, too stunned to answer.
Dr. Renson pat him on the back, "I don't need to see you again until your next physical."
"You won't," Mark said.  "I'll be going to another physician."
Dr. Renson shrugged. "Some people don't appreciate the lengths we go to protect their privacy."

Rick Heller is a comedy writer who lives in New England near the fictional town of Camberwell. He also produces the Smart Genes weblog.

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