I recently had a conversation, or should I say vigorous debate, with a family member who declared her disdain for the medical establishment and its modus operandi. She talked about the frustrations that many of us face in our encounters with healthcare, including feeling like a number or not having adequate time to really discuss health questions or current conditions. Her frustration was palpable, as she talked about her difficulty finding a doctor that she could trust. “I once had a doctor”, she said, “that would listen to me and really explain things.” Since then, she has seen a number of doctors, and they all wanted to just prescribe her medicine without explanation or asking her preference. “And the drug companies are only trying to make money”, as she put it. These feelings have led her on to ignore doctor’s recommendations regarding medications on many occasions. “Once I had really bad heartburn for a while,” she described, “and the doctor didn’t even hear the entire story before throwing an acid pill at me.” Needless to say, she didn’t take it. “It was just heartburn; it wasn’t reflux!” she cried out. Because of her experiences, she had withdrawn her trust in the system as a whole.
I told her that I would also have prescribed an acid-reducing pill, along with changing her diet, if her “heartburn” were bad enough that she came to the office for it. She said, “then you’re just like the rest.” The problem is that she clearly didn’t understand her condition or the danger it presented. But her point was a valid one; she should’ve had this explained. Her physician should have not only taught her that heartburn and reflux, which is short for gastro-esophageal reflux (GERD), can be one in the same, but that it also predisposes one to esophageal cancer. Not a fight you want to pick, trust me. In my thinking, the treatment for this has to be a holistic one—and by this I don’t mean turning to roots and berries. Rather, physicians and patients must understand the cause, typically dietary in this case, and eliminate it, while at the same time treating the damage already sustained. This, most often, requires medication. “Well, he didn’t say that,” she retorted.
The issue for her, in my mind, was not that healthcare is bad or that drug companies are out to take all her money, but that her bad experiences compromised her trust in the altruistic integrity that is generally implied in healthcare. The drawback with this generalization is that it colors every interaction with healthcare. So, instead of approaching healthcare as an enthusiastic and inquisitive consumer, she is a cynic-always skeptical about the recommendations and advice of her healthcare providers. This could prove dangerous.
I advise everyone to be inquisitive, persistent and even a little stubborn when it comes to individual health. But don’t be foolish! There is no question that the broken state of healthcare and its price tag demand some serious redesign. But don’t sabotage yourself before you even know what good you can gain from your encounter with your doctor. Use every device and resource at your disposal to attain and maintain your personal best health. This includes the doctors you decide to hire—after all doctors work for you, not the other way around. Everyone should have a doctor! Hire the doctor that you are the most comfortable with and that you will trust.
Dave Montgomery, M.D., Ph.D., is a board-certified physician and EBONY's Special Contributing Health Editor. You can find him on Facebook or follow him on Twitter: @DMontgomeryMD. Send your health questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.