The doctor-patient relationship is usually one of complete trust, at least for the patient. The vast majority of people do not have any significant medical training, so they defer to the advice of their health care providers. Simply put, patients rely on their doctors to point them in the right direction. But what happens when the doctor advises the patient to do one thing, even though the doctor would choose a different option?
A recent study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine addressed this question, and found a disparity in what doctors recommend compared with the choices they would make as patients. Nearly 250 doctors responded to a questionnaire presenting two hypothetical treatment options for colon cancer. One option had a higher death rate but fewer side effects, while the other option had a lower death rate but higher probability of side effects. According to the study, 38% of doctors chose the first option, but only 25% would recommend that option to a patient. In a second survey involving nearly 700 doctors, a similar scenario was presented regarding avian flu. Doctors overwhelmingly chose to refuse the treatment in order to avoid side effects for themselves (63%), but less than half would advise their patients to do the same (48.5%).
The survey underscores a fundamental difference between doctors and patients. Doctors are giving presumably objective advice, while the patients have to bear the physical and emotional risks and rewards of the recommended treatment. The decision maker – the patient – needs to take a critical look at the pros and cons of the doctor’s advice before proceeding. Rather than following their natural instinct to defer to the doctor, patients should thoroughly question the provider’s plan of action. Being actively involved in your own health care is an important step in safeguarding your health.