It Takes Two to Treat

Jun 22

When was the last time you openly questioned your doctor’s advice?

Think about it. When was the last time your doctor prescribed a treatment, and you said, “Well, I don’t think that’s best for me. Let’s talk about what other options are available”?  If you’ve never said those words, you’re not alone.

As a society, we put a lot of emphasis on personal responsibility for maintaining health and preventing disease: eat healthy foods, exercise, get screened for cancer. But what happens when we get sick? Suddenly, it seems that expectation for personal responsibility evaporates. Instead, we look to our doctor to provide the answers—to tell us what we should do, which treatment is best, and how it will affect us.

A recent study published in Health Affairs found that most patients felt they couldn’t talk to their doctors about treatment options—they were worried about angering or upsetting them, and some even worried that they would receive worse care if they questioned their health care provider.  As a post on the New York Times’ Well Blog put it:

The participants responded that they felt limited, almost trapped into certain ways of speaking with their doctors. They said they wanted to collaborate in decisions about their care but felt they couldn’t because doctors often acted authoritarian, rather than authoritative.

Image Credit: hang_in_there, Flickr

I can understand those patients in the study. I too have sat on that exam table, ready to ask questions and get advice—and then promptly clammed up when the doctor finished her rushed exam and looked up.  It’s not an environment that invites engagement; and the hurried nature of most medical appointments makes it hard to get a word in.

I’m not saying that doctors aren’t the experts—they are.  But we do ourselves a disservice when we don’t speak up about our treatment preferences—never asking if there may be a more effective treatment, or one with fewer side effects or a lower cost, never challenging our doctors to see us as individuals.  When we rely solely on our doctors’ opinions, we run the risk of getting care that doesn’t address our individual needs.

In public health, our campaigns often urge people to “talk to your doctor” about various disease or treatments. But, perhaps it’s time for us to focus not only on starting the conversation, but empowering patients to participate in meaningful, two-way conversations with their doctors—helping patients believe that they have the right (and the responsibility) to ask questions, assert their opinions, and challenge themselves and their doctors to a higher standard of care.

This entry was posted on Friday, June 22nd, 2012 at 2:29 pm and is filed under Behavior Change, Public Health, Social Marketing. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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