Becoming a skeptic

Doctors don’t know everything.  Just ask one – gently.  I imagine your doctor will tell you in one way or another that doctors are not all-knowing.  If he or she claims to be the exception to the rule, find a new doctor – immediately.

The idea for this post has been bouncing around in my head for a long time.  I was inspired to put it into writing this past week during a great lunch with my friend, Paige.  We talked about the shortcomings of the medical field and the hope each patient has that his or her doctor is looking out for the patient’s best interest.

We discussed how our culture teaches us to respect authority.  In addition, we put a high value on education.  The more education one gets, the smarter one must be.  Doctors find themselves somewhere near the top of the educated heap.  The rest of us fall somewhere below that level, especially in the field of medical education.  No, Google and WebMD aren’t good substitutes for a medical degree.

When these two facts are combined, many well meaning people take a back seat in their own healthcare out of respect for the doctor.  After all, they know more than we do.

Unfortunately, our healthcare system has just the opposite approach.  The system expects us to be in the driver’s seat of our healthcare decisions, not our doctor.  The doctor is more like the navigation system, it’s up to the driver to accelerate, brake, or turn and any mistakes that navigation system makes don’t affect it, they affect the driver.

Francis and I learned this lesson the hard way, but the important part is that we did learn it.  We learned that the most important thing you can do in a consultation with your doctor is to be a skeptic.  Don’t be afraid of skepticism because, frankly, it could save your life.

I’m not advocating for patients to be know-it-alls.  No one likes a know-it-all.

What I am saying is that we all need to get back in touch with our inner three-year-old when it comes to our doctors.  We need to ask, “Why?”  Over, and over, and over, and over, and…you get the point.

I’m raising a three-year-old.  I hear this question a lot during my day.  I suspect it should be as commonplace in a doctor’s office as it is in my home.  I also imagine that, in the course of a day, patients don’t ask that of their doctors as often as my son asks me that question in the car to and from preschool.

Everything your doctor recommends should be met with a three-year-old’s sense of curiosity and eagerness to learn.  After all, it’s your body and your doctor doesn’t have to live with it.

While stretching yourself to be a skeptic, don’t be afraid to ask for a second opinion after a diagnosis.  As a matter of fact, that should be your first instinct.  Even if that doctor giving the second opinion arrives at the same diagnosis and course of treatment, consider it a learning experience.  Each time you talk about your medical situation you learn something new.  Embrace that knowledge and don’t be afraid to be a skeptic with them either.  The doctor giving the second opinion is probably expecting it.

Then, ask for a third if the first two doctors don’t agree.  And this is important, tell your doctor what you’re doing.  Don’t go behind their back and sneak off to another doctor.  You’re not cheating on them.  Your first doctor could have valuable input about who to see.  Even better, they could be willing to call and discuss the case with the other doctor.

If your doctor gets angry or defensive, that’s a really bad sign.  Doctors should be taking the lead from you.  The best doctors gave Francis referrals to other doctors for second opinions and then called and discussed the case with them.

Two heads are better than one, and three are probably even better.  There is a reason that places like Mayo Clinic and MD Anderson operate with a team approach to diagnosis and treatment.  Much can be gained by sharing ideas, debating diagnoses, and challenging treatment options.

We should question everything we are told until we have a complete understanding.  We should be asking “why” until our curiosity is quenched.

Take a notebook to every appointment with all of the questions you want answered, no matter how mundane the question seems to you.  Don’t be embarrassed to ask anything.  Don’t let them rush you out of the office before you’ve asked every question in your notebook.

After waiting over three hours past our appointment time on our first visit to MD Anderson, we were told by another patient that we should relax and stop watching the clock.  The appointment time there is merely a suggestion.  The doctors there take the time needed to answer every question a patient has.  Be thankful if your doctor does the same with you, and try to be patient in the waiting room.  I admit that I still struggle with being patient, but I do expect them to make time for me to be a skeptic.

I’ll close by driving this point home, be sure to take your inner three-year-old to the doctor’s office with you.  Then go ahead and set him or her free to unleash a barrage of whys.  A good doctor will appreciate it.


12 responses

  1. Carol Simpson ( John's mom) | Reply

    You are so right with your advice. If we hadn’t sought a second opinion at Mayo Clinic 6 years ago I would have multiple myeloma and had a bone marrow transplant and chemo. As it is I have been on a treatment from Mayo and all of my blood work continiue to improve and the percentage of plasma cells in my bone marrow has dropped from 22% to less than 5%. And I still do not have active myeloma. I contine to pray for your strength and God’s help on your journey.
    Carol Simpson

  2. Beautifully said, and thank you so much for sharing! My mom is from the old school group that doesn’t ask questions .. So I’ve been the one researching , asking questions and taking in the notepad. Thank you for your encouraging advice! She does not have health insurance so were at a county hospital, so it’s been even more challenging because unless you have a lot of $ or insurance you feel like you have a lot less options. I’ll keep up the questions 🙂

    1. My heart goes out to those who are struggling unnecessarily because they are from a generation that doesn’t ask questions. Likewise, I’m so sorry to hear about the struggles that you are facing. Without insurance and a lot of money, these questions are even more important. You are wise to be asking questions at every turn to be sure that your money stretches as far as possible! I pray that you and your mother find the answers you need and the best medical team possible to fight alongside your mom and your family.

  3. Thank you for this great advice. When I was diagnosed with MS the first line of treatment was very extreme. We decided to go get another opinion after I was becoming overwhelmed by the treatment. As it turned out, I really didn’t need that harsh of a treatment. Two years later now and I’m very happy with my choice. Thank you LeAnn. I think of you often. It helps to hear news. God Bless!

  4. Dolores Strickland | Reply

    YES! YES! YES! So right and true. A dear friend had all the pre-surgery tests, Everything! He was cut open and then immediately sewn up as there was nothing that could be done for him …colon, bladder, and stomach all full of cancer….why didn’t these MRIs show this?

  5. Elise Roth Tedeschi | Reply

    What a fantastic post. I am a stage IV Pancreatic cancer survivor and if I had listened to some of the doctors that I saw…..I would not be alive to write this. Trust me, I heard the words, “you are going to die numerous times.”. I even heard those words from an MD Anderson Dr. It is so imperative to find the doctor willing to fight for you. The ones that actually say, “we can’t think that every patient is going to be a text book case.” My doctor said, “you are a statistic of one.”
    Thank you for writing this post! I am definitely sharing this one!

    1. Thank you so much for your encouragement and for sharing your story. Congratulations on overcoming stage IV pancreatic cancer! I can only imagine how hard you and your whole medical team and family fought for your survival. It’s so great to hear the success stories. It inspires me to keep telling our story, though different in outcome, in hopes that there will be more like you! Best wishes and thanks for sharing!

  6. My Mom just died of colon cancer your post about grief really helped me. She was only in hospice care 12 hours. The doctors ran tests on her for months and told us she was getting better even though she was in a coma for a month before her death. We ask many questions the answers never came just more tests. The doctors were never available our calls would take days for a reply if at all. If I had it to do over my mother’s care would be different. At least her pain is over she will never suffer again.

    1. Robyn,
      I’m so sorry that your mother’s care was such an ongoing battle with the doctors. The disease itself should be where our focus is, and unfortunately doctors don’t always play well with patients and caregivers. I’m glad you found my post about grief helpful. I pray that you find peace and get rest now that your mother is no longer in pain.

  7. I love your advice about asking questions. I was a classmate at FBHS with Francis and I’m a nurse often taking care of cancer patients. It is sad to see patients look at doctors and nod their heads and say they don’t have questions, only for the patient to wait until the MD walks out of the room, look at me and ask, “what does that mean?” I love helping to educate my patients, but often times complex questions about specific treatment options are really not something I can tell the patient about. I try to advocate for my patients but they also have to advocate for themselves.

    Your posts have been inspirational. Thanks for writing them.

  8. I used your advice yesterday after re-reading your post. Sometime I don’t ask, because I just can’t handle the answer. Yesterday after reviewing blood counts, I said WHY is that significant? thanks

    1. I’m so glad you found this information helpful. I wish you all the best as you work with your physician to address your medical needs.

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