This article originally appeared on VICE Serbia
In Serbia, it's about as customary to bring a gift for your doctor, as it is to jaywalk or put mayo on your pizza. Although a gift can be a terrific way to express gratitude to someone, giving one to your physician can pose an ethical problem. Doctors, you see, are getting paid for their services and have taken something called the Hippocratic Oath. They should just make you better without expecting or accepting anything in return – more than their salary that is. Taking a gift from a patient can be seen as a bribe, and it's defined by Serbian law as a criminal act.
But for many Serbian doctors, it's not easy to reject those gifts. Many of them are structurally underpaid considering the difficulty of their job and the long hours they make, so some see getting a bottle of wine as a nice little extra. More importantly, bringing a present is so engrained in Serbian social customs, that many patients won't accept any kind of rejection.
My friend Nikola, for example, sees his doctors a few times a year for check-ups for his myocarditis – which is an inflammation of the heart muscle. He always brings a bottle of whiskey, sometimes chocolates if he knows the doctor has kids. "I've just been brought up to bring a bottle of liquor for the doctor," Nikola told me when I asked him about it. "Honestly, I don't know if the one I see most often even drinks at all – it could very well be that he has enough unopened whiskey bottles at home by now to open a duty-free shop."
I asked Nikola if he hopes for a better treatment in return. "It has nothing to do with bribery, it's just a nice gesture. I could be offending them for bringing a gift, but I'd rather do that than offend someone by not bringing anything. If they don't want the gift, I can take it back – but if I bring nothing and the doctor was expecting something, I'm in the hands of someone who I've just disappointed. I'll be toast."
To find out if Nikola would really be toast, I spoke to four doctors from different medical facilities in the city of Nis in southern Serbia. I asked them about the weirdest gifts they've received over the course of their career, and what they do when a patient insists on giving them.
O.G., Physician, Nis Teaching Hospital
"A patient once gave me a pack of coffee – an opened one. At the time, I think people were collecting barcodes on the coffee packaging for some kind of contest. So the patient had accidentally cut open the pack while cutting out the barcode for himself, and brought it to me like that. I just thanked him. I think he felt awkward enough, but he really just wanted to show his gratitude somehow. He made a big thing of telling me how sorry he was it was open – if he'd just discretely left it on my table I would not have noticed. I would have thought I had opened it myself. I generally don't like it when patients bring gifts, and I sometimes manage to persuade them to take it back. But to be honest, I don't feel bringing someone an opened pack of coffee is really bribery."
"Patients bring me presents all the time. The weirdest thing I've ever received was definitely a pack of toilet roll. It was in the early 90s, during the years that Serbia was under UN sanctions and there was a shortage of everything. We all had to make do as well as we could, at work and outside of it. The country had really hit rock bottom, so getting anything like that wasn't anything out of the ordinary, but looking back it was pretty heartbreaking. Today I would throw someone who'd want to give me toilet roll as a gift out of my surgery, but I don't believe anyone today would think of gifting me with something like that."
A.S., Works at a Nephrology Department
"I think the weirdest thing someone tried to give me was a voucher for a summer holiday for two. My patients had booked it for themselves, but weren't able to use it. It was more sad than weird, really. I politely declined, of course, and tried to convince them to just change the departure date or at least give the holiday to someone in their family."
M.D., Dentist with a Private Practice
"I work in a private practice, so my patients already pay for my services and just make appointments – they don't have to queue up, and bringing me a gift on top of paying would absolutely not help them. Still, people bring me "thank you" presents. Homemade juice, pies, cookies, pastries, or even crates of grapes. Come to think of it, it's mostly food and drinks. I absolutely don't need it and often just give it away.
Regardless of the fact that they're paying for my services, certain patients just insist on showing their gratitude by bringing something and they're offended if I don't take it. Especially when I've done something special, like squeezed a patient in between two other appointments, saw them on a weekend of gave them a discount. In those cases, patients want to give something in return – which, again, is obviously not necessary."