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Straight, No Chaser: When the Patient Knows Better

By Jeffrey Sterling, MD November 17, 2018

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So … your friendly neighborhood ER physician chats with a patient.

Client: “Doc, I’m sick. I need my asthma medicine. I need steroids, an inhaler and some antibiotics.”
Expert: “Oh really. How do you know that?”
Client: “Oh, I get the same thing this time every year.”
Expert: “Hmm. Same time every year, huh? Would you mind telling me your symptoms first?”
Client: “Cough, chest tightness, wheezing. I’m telling you. Same thing every year.”
Expert: “Have you gotten your flu shot this year?”
Client: “I haven’t had the flu shot since 2005, but I’m going to get it in January. But this is my asthma! C’mon, Doc. I just need my antibiotics and my asthma medicine.”
Expert: “There’s an adage in medicine that has been proven true a million times over. A physician that treats himself has a fool for a patient. Now, if physicians won’t treat themselves …”
If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a million times.

  • “I know my body.”
  • “I’ve had the exact thing before.”
  • “I read it on the Internet.”
  • “I had a friend with the same thing.”
  • “I just want to make sure.”
  • “Well you have to do something, don’t you?”

Medicine is a science. By that, I mean a real science made of facts—not opinions, educated guesses or perspectives. There are seemingly a million paraprofessionals and incredibly intelligent people on the periphery of healthcare who have what we describe as an “experience base.” That means they “know” it because they’ve seen it or just read it. That is completely different than a knowledge base. Physicians have completed between seven and 10 years after undergrad learning, understanding and mastering the human body. What does that mean to you? Basically, the methodology for practicing medicine is not the linear A+B=C (i.e., “I have this symptom, therefore it must be this disease”).
Yes, this applies to you. Even you, dear “I know my body better than you do” reader. When you tell your physician that you’ve seen or experienced something before, you’re basically suggesting your sample size of one defines the entire universe of medicine. Even as it applies to you, the body is a wondrously complex creation with many, many variables affecting a single breath or heartbeat.
So, when your physician is telling you something different than what you believe or expect to hear about your condition, it’s not that s/he isn’t listening to you. It’s that s/he has listened to you and has come to a different determination. That’s why physicians have the power to write prescriptions, and you (and even pharmacists) don’t.
Of course, none of this is to say that your input isn’t valuable. It is valuable, and that’s why the physician asks you the questions. This is not even to say that physicians don’t make mistakes. This is to challenge you to allow the conversation to occur. Ask your own questions. Demand an explanation from your caregiver. Insist on being part of the care team and a partner in your treatment plan. Learn what to look for, what you can do at home and what should prompt additional measures. If you are stuck on a course of treatment before the conversation occurs, it is just as pointless as if a physician refuses to listen to your concerns.
Cut your physicians some slack. Many of you get so frustrated and outright angry when you don’t get your way. Physician’s offices and emergency rooms are not grocery stores. It’s not as if docs own the pharmaceutical company or the hospital. They’re just trying to care for you as best they can. As much as physicians love to provide satisfaction to patients, caring for you appropriately is of a higher order. Many of you understand this, and as such physicians continue to have among the highest rating of “trust” among professionals. It’s a privilege to take care of patients. The overwhelming majority of us still understand that fact.
Postscript: It was the flu.
PPS: A little advice from a friendly online SMA expert might have saved her the trip to the ER.
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