Patients are not total idiots!
Yesterday I read an awesome post by the MightyCasey in response to an astonishing post by a certain Niam Yaraghi in USA Today. According to said Niam Yaraghi patients are incapable of managing or understanding their own health and should leave it all entirely up the medical professionals. In essence in his article he treats patients like small, stupid children who have no idea what they are talking about and, whilst capable of making highly complicated investment decisions, are not capable of making basic healthcare decisions.
My first jaw dropping moment was when I read:
“Patients are neither qualified nor capable of evaluating the quality of the medical services that they receive. How can a patient, with no medical expertise, know that the treatment option that he received was the best available one?”
“……….” That’s me being speechless. Really? So we are not capable of realising that we are getting better or worse? And doctors always have the answer to whether we are getting better or not? Looking at this one point I go back to my own experience. I had been diagnosed with hypothyroidism, was on the appropriate medication, and, according to the specialist I went to see, I was totally healthy and the severe fatigue, depression, 15kg weight gain, etc. was all in my head. This was a doctor that followed Niam Yaraghi’s view that patients were total idiots and had no idea what was going on with their own bodies. As it happens I am not a total idiot and I knew the doctor was not right (shock horror! But doctors are always right according to Mr Yaraghi!) and something was wrong. I went online, self-diagnosed and then got got a second opinion from a specialist back in the UK. It turned out that stupid patient me was actually right and the specialist I had first seen was wrong. I had Hashimoto’s and I needed to do more than just take my pills to get back to normal. Had a acted like the USA today article says I should act as a patient and just trust the doctor I would by now be too sick to work or write this blog, or worse.
This also leads on to the second point in the quote namely that patient’s cannot possibly have any idea about what the best treatment option is. Casey covers this very nicely in her post by flagging that a doctor who graduated years and years ago, and who may not have remained totally up to date in your specific condition, may in fact not have the best idea of the latest medical breakthrough in this disease. This is especially true for patient with rare diseases, who are often much more knowledgeable on the latest medical news in their disease. This is all thanks to this amazing tool called the internet and social media. I myself for example informed my doctor of some new trials happening around timing of taking thyroid meds – the established knowledge is that you take the pill in the morning but new evidence suggests night time may in fact be better – my doctor had not seen this bit of news. This is not to say that all patients know more about the latest thing than doctors do but you cannot discount the knowledge of patients with chronic diseases who spend considerable time researching online as well as sharing experiences with other patients.
Next our article goes on to say that people are able to make complex financial investment choices as they have a baseline with which to compare the end results but that patients have no such thing for their healthcare. He also goes on to say that we are not capable of judging the short and long term outcomes – only a doctor can do this. Admittedly we cannot say how many years we will have left to live – but frankly no doctor can guarantee that either. What we can tell you is by how much we feel better – and we do have a baseline of our health prior to sickness. In my case, for example, once I got the right diagnosis and made the appropriate changes, my depression disappeared, I was able to function normally again and I lost some of the weight (sadly not the entire 15kg). This to me is a pretty good indication that my healthcare was improved. In terms of timing I had a small positive short term outcome and currently the longer term outcome is looking pretty good too (although still not lost any more weight). I have also had this disease long enough to have a good idea of what my blood results mean (at least in terms of good and bad) and I can tell that my blood results are improving.
“While the interaction between patients and their medical providers is an important element of the medical care process, it is not the most important one. To choose the best medical provider, patients are encouraged to rely on measures of medical expertise and avoid invalid online reviews.”
Finally I would like to point out that slighting the importance of the interaction between patients and their medical providers is also somewhat shortsighted. Admittedly in many cases it may not be the most critical element but it will probably come in a close second or third, whilst in other cases it is indeed the most important element. If the interaction is terrible a patient may ignore all of the doctor’s advice and turn to other sources, which may endanger their lives, or simply become less vested in their healthcare, less adherent and in future lie to their doctor – also resulting in negative outcomes. After my personal, horrific experience with the Spanish endocrinologist, I could have just fallen deeper and deeper into depression and stopped going to seek medical help altogether, instead I ended up finding the most amazing doctor I have ever, ever had (Dr Kruhl in Zurich) and who I trust entirely with my health and my life. If she tells me to do something I will, had the Spanish endocrinologist told me to I would have ignored her. I think it is fairly clear from this just how important the patient physician interaction is.
When it comes to online reviews they also can have a role to play – firstly I found my amazing Dr Kruhl through online reviews. Secondly I value the input from other patients with similar conditions far more than a random pick of a doctor’s surgery based solely on their location or position in the yellow pages. It is also not just about the medicine any more. It is about having the empathy, the understanding, the interaction skills as well as being digitally adept enough to stay up to speed with the latest thinking. You can have the most medically adept physician but if his expertise has not been kept up to date and he treats his patients like stupid little nincompoops then his outcomes will not compare to an equally medically adept physician who is able to empathise and interact with this patients, and share the latest digital support tools with them.
So I say to you Niam Yaraghi, as a patient – we are not incompetent nincompoops incapable of educating ourselves around our healthcare and of making valid decisions around our healthcare. The days of your type of thinking, when doctors were revered and were never wrong, and patients were treated like irritating, stupid little children are drawing to an end. In fact this article highlights the dangers of people with no empathy or understanding for patients, for today’s changing healthcare dynamics and for the real world, of getting involved in the healthcare system. I would challenge an academic technologist and economist to get out of the theoretical environment of the university and go out and talk to empowered patients and patients with chronic diseases before you label all patients as stupid and incapable.