The first patient I made cry ended up leaving my practice and moving on to a colleague of mine. Unfortunately for the patient, switching providers did nothing to make her change her own ways and she ended up with an amputation, the outcome I was trying hard to prevent.
What did I say to cause the tears? I had looked her in the eye and simply said
Right now I care more about your foot than you do. How is that possible? If you lose your leg it will affect every aspect of your life and mine not at all. Yet I am more invested in this outcome than you are. Make a change or lose the foot, the choice is yours.
It was the truth. A hard truth that unfortunately made no difference and while this was an extreme case, it happens with nearly every patient in varying degrees.
The dirty little secret about doctors is that most of the time they do not heal anyone. The best we can do is provide you with the tools you need to treat yourself at least in the cases of chronic, long term conditions. Sure I can cure your wart, surgically correct your bunion or eliminate your ingrown nail. But when it comes to longer term problems, it has more to do with what you are doing than anything I can achieve for you.
Your endocrinologist can’t follow you around all day making healthy eating choices for you, reminding you to check your blood sugar and to take your insulin on time in the proper dose.
Your internist can’t wake up inside your home and remind you to take that blood pressure pill and put the salt shaker away.
Your cardiologist can’t force you to take that 10 minute walk every day they recommended for heart health.
And I couldn’t follow this patient around reminding her to wear the offloading boot, keep the dressing on and stay out of the pool. The best I could do was explain clearly what needed done, why it needed done and what would happen if she didn’t.
Maybe some doctors do not care about their patients. Maybe some only want to get through the day. There are a lot that do care though. That worry and stress and wrack their brains, digging deep into their training, to come up with ways to make you better. Doctors that you lie to when you look them in the eye and swear you’ve been doing everything they prescribed and yet are no better. Doctors that worry they missed something. Doctors like me that lay awake at night trying to come up with a solution.
If I care more about your outcome than you do, there is a big issue and it isn’t the treatment plan. You are responsible for your own health. It is your body, your life. If your doctor comes up with a treatment plan and you know it will not happen, speak up. Explain what your concerns are. Ask questions. Do not sit there and nod and walk out of the room knowing full well you have no intentions of following through.
The only time I get angry with a patient is when they come back to me and aggressively demand to know why they are not cured. Why do I still hurt? Why haven’t you fixed me yet? Do you even know what you are doing? My wound has not improved in months! My heel still hurts!
I’m not a shy doctor. I have no qualms explaining to you very clearly why you still hurt, why your wound is not healed.
It’s because of you.
It’s because you are not stretching, wearing proper shoes, using ice massage. It’s because you ignored my instructions to elevate to reduce swelling, wear the special shoe to reduce pressure and not get the foot wet. I’ll do all in my power to set you up for success but the 15 minutes I see you a week are but a drop in the bucket.
You must care more about your outcome than I do. Trust me, I care. A lot. It’s a high bar to set for my patients. I lay awake at night wondering what I’ve missed, what I should do next. I text colleagues and ask for advice. All assuming that you are following my instructions. If I learn that you aren’t , that you in fact don’t care about this outcome more than I do, then I too will stop caring.
When both the patient and the doctor stop caring about the outcome, it gets dangerous. So please, step up to the plate. Become more involved in your own care. It’s your health on the line. Ask questions. Speak up when you know something isn’t possible for you. Ask for an alternative. Be polite about it and don’t lie. I want you to get better. Trust me I really do.