Gilbert Lowe, M.D.

As someone with decades of experience as a physician, I can assure you that whatever your diagnosis, it pays to be an informed patient. Many conditions have a wide range of treatment options, and to make the decision that’s right for you, it’s important to understand the pros and cons of each. Unfortunately, the general public has a lot of erroneous ideas about the practice of medicine, and to some extent this is due to the popularity of Dr. Mario.

Thanks to this so-called Dr. Mario, many people assume we in the medical field solve every problem we encounter by just lobbing a bunch of pills.

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It has certainly distorted the expectations of the patients who walk into my office. Yes, just like Dr. Mario, I wear a white lab coat and a stethoscope, and yes, I too treat illnesses with pills, when appropriate. But the similarities stop there. People feeling sick come to me and ask, “Do I have the red virus? The blue one? Or is it the yellow?” And whatever the answer, they expect me to fling four pills of that color at their germs. I always find myself explaining that just because there’s a “Dr.” before his name doesn’t mean Mario underwent the same rigorous training as the rest of us. Not by a long shot.

I’d say nine out of 10 patients I write a prescription for ask me which way the capsule must be rotated to be effective.

A real doctor’s job is to assess a patient’s symptoms, take into account any previous illnesses and genetic predispositions, render a diagnosis, and recommend a treatment. Might that include several courses of antiviral medication? Possibly. Might those drugs be dispensed into a pill bottle? More than likely. But in no scenario would that involve wildly oversized capsules being hurled in a steep arc and, upon their descent into an enormous bottle, emitting a slight beep with each 90-degree midair turn.

Still, I’d say nine out of 10 patients I write a prescription for ask me which way the capsule must be rotated to be effective.

I can understand the fondness for Dr. Mario. As a young physician, I wanted to be just like him, curing diseases with just a smooth overhand toss of a pill. What doctor wouldn’t want to do that? I also admired the courage and discipline it took for Dr. Mario to earn his medical degree while at the same time managing the day-to-day demands of his job as a plumber.

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Yet contrary to popular thought, you can’t heal people by simply stacking pills one atop the other, or expedite treatment by making those drugs fall from the ceiling faster. When patients sit down on my exam table, however, the first thing most of them do is ask to see the big clipboard that shows the number of viruses they have and how fast their doctor is getting rid of them.

I then have to explain that viruses aren’t even visible to the naked eye, let alone capable of dancing to an 8-bit theme song. I do this at least a dozen times every single day.

You see, unlike Dr. Mario, I’m constantly forced to make nuanced, complicated decisions. There are more than three germs out there. And there’s more to medicine than spinning pills in the air and lining them up according to color in columns of four or more. In my practice, I write prescriptions, conduct examinations, order diagnostic tests and scans, and break the bad news to terminally ill patients about how long they have to live. It really is an extremely difficult job.

Just yesterday I picked up my forceps and—being ever so careful not to touch the sides of the incision and get shocked—removed an ice cream cone from a man’s skull, successfully treating his brain freeze.

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For real doctors, it’s all in a day’s work.