Do I really need to listen to my doctor? Yes, and…

We’re receiving amazing questions from people for the Q & A portion of our podcast, Wellness Unlocked. Some we are not able to address during an episode and we will periodically be answering these here on our blog.

Here’s the gist of an important set of questions we received that inspired this post:

How do you politely disagree with your doctor’s recommendations about lifestyle habits due to a particular diagnosis you’ve received? And also, what do you do when you know more about your condition than your doctor? 

This is a really tough subject, I admit. A few months ago I shared a post about tips for choosing your acupuncturist and while I am mostly focused on acupuncturists here, it really does apply for the healthcare profession at large and whether you are matched well with your provider. To answer the question fully, I’d recommend reading this post.

The relationship between a doctor (or any health care provider) and a patient is a unique one, and an important one. On one hand, the real expert on you, is you. No one knows you like you do. On the other hand, we live in a time in culture where the expertise has been placed in the hands of doctors, studied experts and specialists. Somehow we have disempowered our innate wisdom about our own wellbeing and have contracted it out to our physicians. In today’s world physicians have an incredible amount of training, and the knowledge they possess in the area of their study and practice is extraordinary. Taking some time to chat with a doc about their specialty area can open up the window into their passion about what they do and the knowledge and wisdom they have accumulated over their years of practice.

Also (warning: mass generalization to follow), because as a culture we’ve become OTC pill poppers, many of us really don’t have much practice with our own wisdom about our symptoms and understanding our disease progression or the reality of how to help ourselves heal. What I mean here is that most of us who get a headache or have some pain somewhere hit the Advil-Tylenol-Aleve-etc. pretty hard and fast…it’s a rarity to try things like sleeping/napping, hydrating, changing our dietary habits or looking inward at our emotional state in order to suss out the cause of the symptom(s) we are having. This applies for most ailments – tummy stuff, emotional stuff, aches, pains, sleep troubles and more. Over time this leaves us each in complete ignorance about how our bodies are signaling for help and then by accident we’ve placed the power into the hands of our doctors to figure it all out on our behalf…that’s a ton of pressure on them actually.

With all this in mind, it’s not a surprise to me that individuals and their doctors are not always on the same page about what’s happening and what to do about it.

So what’s a person to do when they find themselves at odds with the expert’s opinion about their situation?

The long and short of it goes like this:

  • You and your doctor of choice are actually embarking upon a partnership for your wellbeing. It’s important to select someone you trust to help you sort through your diagnosis and the associated issues and challenges that can arise as it heals or progresses. This doesn’t mean that you and Doc have to agree all the time, however it does mean that you need to have open dialogue together and be able to negotiate the path to great care. Hence, if they make a recommendation to you and it doesn’t jive, request a conversation about it. Be sure to explain where you are coming from and be open to listening about their perspective. Then collaborate and cooperate to generate a plan for moving forward.

For example, Doc says you shouldn’t be running but you feel amazing when you run. Maybe you and Doc can agree that taking a run a few times a week is worth testing out and maybe the agreement is that on other days its a swim instead… You can come up with a time frame for checking in, something you both feel healthy about. Come to these agreements with open communication and then be open to exploring the effects. Maybe your doctor will learn something from you that can help other patients, and maybe your doctor will teach you about where the concern is coming from in a way that makes some sense. From here you can find the most appropriate and unique solution to address your unique self, together.

  • Ask tons of questions. You have an opportunity and a right to ask questions and receive answers in a way that makes sense and is digestible to you. You know that phase that most kids go through – the “how come” or “why” phase? Employ this and ask why. Maybe there is something your doctor knows that you don’t know that could be useful to you as you navigate your decision making about lifestyle choices. Likewise maybe your request to get specific and clear will help them understand you better as well as what has you feel whole and healthy. If you find some research that supports your perspective bring it with you and look at it together. Hash it out. We have a bit of a rush-rush medical world in many ways where physicians do not always have time to sit and dialogue with you – it’s a breakdown of the system, not necessarily of your physician. Be insistent about your needs and your questions. Find a way to get the information that you need. Demand this kind of care. A great doctor will find a way to get you what you need (even if that means scheduling you to come back again or making a referral for another member of your attending team).
  • Seek “second opinions” until you find the right match for you. In general, us healthcare providers realize you may need to seek another opinion in order to make a decision and get the care you need. Personally I am not offended by this and I don’t believe anyone should be. I think it can be incredibly useful for all parties for you to get those additional opinions because 1) you get more information and education along the way 2) it gives you a better opportunity for finding a physician that you feel is a great match with you and 3) if I then have the opportunity to work with you again or collaborate with the other practitioner who provided the second opinion, everyone wins: two heads really are better than one. Finding the right doctor is a lot like dating…you look around, have a bunch of visits, consider your must-haves and seek a good connection. When it’s the right person, you will know it and you will have confidence in the input that they are providing to you about your care, even where there are disagreements.

Remember, a doctor’s has a responsibility to “do no harm.” Sometimes because of the extreme cases doctors are seeing for various illnesses, or because of the rapidly changing research, or due to current “best practices” in their field, they may make a blanket assumption or statement about what’s right/good for you. It’s likely because they want to see no undue harm come your way. And, in our world of malpractice law suits and scary statistics they could be erring on the side of caution.

Generally speaking people go into medicine to help people; and any licensed medical provider is responsible for doing their best with the knowledge and experience that they have. Your doctor will want to give you the best possible advice that they know how to provide, likewise they are not likely to give you the “A-OK” on anything that they are inexperienced with, feel nervous about or have cause to believe would do you more harm then good. So, a little dialogue goes a long way. Communicate openly, honestly and fearlessly and see if you can find a foundation where both you and your doctor are on the same page. If you can’t, it’s time to find someone new.


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