Getting The Best From Your Doctor

Jenny Marsh—03/2002
There are two approaches that we can make to our doctor when we are unwell. The first sees us assuming the traditional role of the meek patient who is basically giving the expert practitioner cart blanch to do whatever he or she deems necessary to our body, with mutual assumption that doctor knows best.

WHEN WE ARE UNWELL, there are two approaches that we can make to our doctor. We can assume the traditional role of the meek patient who is basically giving the expert practitioner carte blanche to do whatever he or she deems necessary, with mutual assumption that doctor knows best. Or we can treat our doctor as one of our advisors or counsellors to help us decide our treatment plan and path to recovery. Other counsellors might include qualified alternative or complementary practitioners, spiritual advisors, friends and family, as well as (or perhaps most importantly) ourselves, via our feelings and intuitions.

Both these approaches work to some extent; however, the second one tends to work better because it takes in more information and leaves room for more possibility. It also sets up a psychological state in which we are taking responsibility, a state that has been shown to increase survival chances. When we are ill, we are vulnerable, and it can be tempting under these difficult circumstances to put ourselves in somebody else's safe hands. Although most doctors have good intentions, intentions do not choose diagnosis and treatment — medical training does. And most doctors are trained in a narrow medical perspective, with little time to expand their knowledge outside the drug-biased pharmaceutical journals. (For example, in the four or more years it takes to train to be a doctor there is usually only a few hours of training in nutrition, so a doctor is unlikely to be advocating dietary changes, even though such changes might be pivotal to recovery.) Health is too important, complex and holistic, to be left entirely in the hands of these specialists.

Some people, due to psychological make-up, beliefs, background or whatever, want to completely trust a doctor's opinion as to the best course of treatment. If you are that sort of person, then trying to gather further information to make your own decision is going to be a very uncomfortable process, and so you are probably better off following your doctor's orders. If, however, you are someone who takes responsibility for your own health, then the following guidelines will allow you to increase your chances of recovery and your self-empowerment in the face of disease (I have referred to your doctor as a particular sex, male, in order to make the sentences more readable):

  1. If you have the choice, try to choose a doctor who has some experience with complementary treatments. This will mean that he has more pieces of the puzzle and is therefore likely to offer you a more balanced perspective and a more holistic treatment plan. He is also likely to be more cautious in prescribing drugs, especially for long-term use, and he is more likely to tell you the limits of particular treatments (both orthodox and unorthodox) because he is not attached to a particular one.
  2. Always call your doctor by his first name, and NEVER by his professional title. This will put him on an even footing psychologically with you and forces him to see you more like a human being than a patient. If he doesn't like being called by his first name, don't call him anything (or get a more down-to-earth doctor.)
  3. Keep asking your doctor what his "advice" is, for this reminds both of you that you are there to seek his counsel and not to obey his decisions. You are the one that is unwell and it is you that must ultimately decide what you are going to do to get better, even if it is to follow his advice. To ensure that the advice is his very best, ask him what treatment he would recommend if it were his son or daughter had the same problem.
  4. If you are seriously ill, for example you have cancer or heart disease, ask you doctor how many individuals he has personally treated with your particular condition. If you are his first, you might want to consider a doctor with more experience in this area of disease.
  5. Doctors are extremely busy and so they often try to quickly prescribe a drug-fix so that they can get on with the next patient. Insist on him telling you all the side effects of the particular medication he recommends, and ask him if there are any alternatives (both orthodox and unorthodox) he can recommend instead, or whether there are complementary treatments that might be beneficial. (For example, if he prescribes antibiotics, he should also recommend acidophilus.)
  6. Never allow your doctor to keep you on drug prescriptions long-term without periodic reassessments. He may not want to give you time, but long term medication tends to carry risk, and you need to know about that risk.
  7. It is always a good idea to tell your doctor if you are taking food supplements or herbal preparations, as a few of these can interfere with the workings of medication. Ask him if there is any conflict or any reason why you shouldn't be taking a particular food supplement or having a particular complementary therapy (but DON'T ask his permission to take them). Make your own decision based on his knowledge of drugs. (If he derides you or makes a sarcastic remark about your alternative or complementary choices, you may have the wrong doctor.)
  8. Unless you need to begin treatment immediately, always independently research your particular disease or problem, and the treatments or drugs that your doctor is suggesting to you. Try National Library of Medicine and Health Square on the internet and some of the more reputable alternative sites such as Alternative Medicine or Altmedicine.
  9. If you are going to undergo a life-and-death treatment, such as chemotherapy, ask your doctor what the 5 year and 10 year survival percentages are for individuals who had the treatment against those that did not. And it is important to also ask him about quality of life (you might prefer to live for 3 years with a reasonable quality of life, surrounded by your family, then 5 nauseous years, in and out of a hospital).
  10. Unless you have an open-minded doctor well versed with alternative and complementary treatments, your doctor is unlikely to know about prevention and health lifestyle choices (other than the risks of smoking and the need to eat the proverbial and fictitious well-balanced diet). Keep those sorts of question for more alternative practitioners who specialize in this area.
  11. NEVER feel obliged to stay with your doctor if you are unhappy with his advice or his treatment. Health is far more important that loyalty (even if he has been the family doctor for years).
  12. Finally, if your problem is serious, always seek a second opinion. Not only will this make you surer about the diagnosis, but it might offer you more options in treatment.

Taking responsibility for our own health can be unsettling at first because we are conditioned to see the doctor as THE health and disease expert. However, most open-minded doctors that the author has come across are the first to advocate personal responsibility. After all, individuals who take responsibility for their own health tend to be far healthier than those that don't, recovery more rapidly when they are ill, and have an increased likelihood of survival with serious diseases.