Posts Tagged ‘patient-doctor relationship’

Why don’t patients ask questions of their doctor?

May 31, 2010

My wife came back from a doctor’s appointment the other day, and immediately, I noticed that she looked puzzled and somewhat confused. So, I asked her about her appointment.  She went over her discussion with the doctor as I kept probing with questions about their conversation.  I found myself asking the following question more than any other: “Well, did you ask him about…?” Before too long, doing what I do for a living, I could not help but wonder why patients aren’t more inquisitive. Is there something about the patient-doctor relationship that makes patients not want to ask questions of their physicians?

Surely, the primary responsibility for gathering information about the patient’s medical conditions is and should be with the physicians. After all, their knowledge of medicine is vastly superior to that of the average patient. Still, when a patient has questions, there is often no good reason not to ask them. Consider a physician who orders hormone replacement for a female patient with a history of blood clots or hypercoagulability of which the physician is unaware. Consider another patient who develops a series of complications after a surgical procedure but who decides to tough-it- out and not ask any questions during follow-up appointments with the physician. In both of these examples, the patient risks developing potentially life-threatening conditions, and, if the patient knows or suspects that possibility for whatever reason, it is probably not a good idea to assume that the doctor will be the one to ask the right questions. So, why are patients sometimes reluctant to ask more questions about their medical care or condition?  I don’t presume to know the answer, but I suspect, in part, it has to do with the patient’s expectations.

For example, when I am pain, I don’t really want to have an extensive Q & A session with my doctor. I just want treatment!  It is simply mentally relaxing to just let go and have someone else take care of me. In addition, my knowledge of medicine is superficial at best. I don’t feel comfortable asking questions if I don’t know what I am talking about. My ego would rather have me in pain than allow me to question a doctor at the risk of looking like a fool.

On a subconscious level, I am probably also dealing with preconceived notions about doctors.  As long as I can remember, I have been told that doctors are intelligent and in control. After all, who else is capable of getting into medical school and then have the stamina to survive some seven to ten years of medical training? All of this makes me think that my doctor can only make the right decisions about my medical care. And then there is the medical office or the hospital. The smells, the patients (most with problems far worse than I have), the complicated machines that look like they belong in a sci-fi movie don’t exactly add-up to a familiar, comfortable environment.  I am in pain, uncomfortable, and somewhat intimidated – not exactly an environment conducive of critical thinking.

Well, if this is how other people feel, I think that might explain why patients are sometimes not as inquisitive as they should be.  What do you think?  If you are a patient or a physician, your feedback is much appreciated. Of course, everyone is welcome to comment.

Contributing author: Jon Stefanuca

Editor’s Note: This piece was written by Jon Stefanuca. My own wife has an advanced degree in pathology, did surgical pathology and autopsies. She DOES ask questions! Do you really need a medically-related degree, however, to ask the basic questions so that you have a clue what you’ve just agreed to by way of medical care? I think not. Moral of the story: be your own patient advocate! If you need help, then have a family member or a close friend accompany you if you have any doubt.

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