I’m the Doctor, You’re the Doctor

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NaBloPoMo 2017: Field Notes from a Life in Medicine

“I’m the doctor, just do what I say.”  I don’t think doctors actually say this anymore, but I wonder how many of us think it?  It’s probably not even a conscious thought, but rather an attitude—paternalistic and directive, a relic from the old days when patients had no power or voice in the relationship because the doctor held all the information and all the expertise.  Today patients are empowered by culture and the internet to participate in shared decision making , and it’s a good thing.

The problem with the “I’m the doctor” attitude is that it inhibits the patient from owning their own healthcare choices.  Then if and when the care plan goes badly, they feel rightly justified blaming the doctor, because they were just following orders.  Sometimes it’s necessary, like in the case of trauma or serious surgery, where the doctor is truly in charge and must make life or death decisions according to their expertise and judgment.  Thankfully this is not my work.

In primary care, if I take this attitude, I miss an opportunity to forge a collaborative and rewarding relationship with my patients.  If I simply issue orders, people don’t feel seen or heard, and they may withhold important information that would help me make a better, more relevant diagnostic and treatment plan.  And if they defy my advice (edict), as they are more likely to do when our relationship is transactional and cookbook, and things go well, then I lose credibility and they are even less likely to follow my advice in the future.

“You’re the doctor,” on the other hand, is something I hear often.  It usually comes up when patients (and I) are faced with decisions involving competing interests or vague risks and benefits.  An example is prostate cancer screening.  Guidelines over the years have ranged from screening every man, every year, starting at age 50, for life, to don’t screen anyone ever.  Most physicians and professional societies agree currently that the best approach is to discuss risks of screening (over-diagnosis, harm from testing in patients without disease) and not screening (missing early cancer, delayed diagnosis, possibly leading to preventable negative outcome), and make decisions based on patients’ individual values and goals.

When a patient in this or a similar situation says to me, “You’re the doctor, just tell me what to do” alarms ring my mind.  What I intend to be a shared decision suddenly falls to me to make unilaterally.  In this scenario, the patient essentially cedes responsibility for the treatment plan, and if it goes badly then it’s my fault “because you told me to.”  Or the patient may choose to ignore my directive and also blame me because “you told me to but I disagreed.”  Either way a patient may then feel justified to blame me for any negative outcome, even though I gave them what they said they wanted.  I understand that this is not how the scenario necessarily plays out, but somehow I’m wary of it.

I had my teeth cleaned today.  The dentist recommends x-rays every year; I politely decline most of the time.  I just don’t understand (or accept?) the rationale and benefits of annual radiation to my face, and I’m cynical about the fee-for-service structure in which providers make more money for ordering more tests (which is a legitimate concern in medicine, also).  Without explaining why it’s recommended for me particularly (it was explained later), I heard, “Well, it’s okay if you don’t do it today, but you have to do it next time.”  [Expletive, not stated out loud.] I am emotionally triggered when people try to tell me what to do without asking me what I think about it first (see my post from 2 days ago).  So I bristle when I witness colleagues doing it, or when my patients demand it from me.

I don’t see my job as telling people what to do—I am not a surrogate.  Rather, I think of myself as consultant and guide, expert, counsel.  It’s my job to discuss, explore, explain, review, consider, negotiate, compare, assess, debate, explain and discuss again, and then make a shared decision.  This includes follow-up and contingency planning, setting expectations, and reassurance about my commitment to the person, regardless of the problem.  I’m the doctor, you’re the patient, we are a team.  We are in this together.

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