Why your doctors words could be harmful to your health


This week has fueled me with rage. I’ve heard way too many stories about doctors inappropriately scaring the bejesus out of people, sending them into a frenzy of death-fears.

“This swollen gland means your son may have leukemia”, “This pap smear is abnormal - you need an immediate hysterectomy”, “I don’t like this lump, we need to send you in for emergency surgery to check for tumours”.

In the flash of his own visionless eye, the doctor has reduced an otherwise well, happy and hopeful person into a hysterical mess. Worst-case scenarios are carelessly handed over, words thoughtlessly destroying the patient’s world. All with a few simple, and often factually unproven words.

A few things here:


Firstly, the concept of “doctor knows all” is a bullshit one.


Gone are the days when we worshipped doctors as all-seeing, all-knowing men of profound wisdom and knowledge. They are people, and with that comes limitation. They’re working with the information available to them and trying their best to draw conclusions. Sometimes this information is sound. Sometimes it isn’t.


And sometimes they just don’t know.


The bottom line is that as with all people, they’re always going to view a situation through the lens of their own worldview. That’s just how we roll.

This worldview can’t help but translate into what is said and how it’s said. This is the difference between “the test results shows [insert fact here] and we have a number of promising options available to us” vs. “the test leaves us no option. If you don’t have [insert name of scary surgery here] immediately, you are going to [insert any number of nightmarish outcomes, dreaded diseases and deaths]’. How do you think your body is going to react in these two different scenarios? Yeah, not exactly rocket science.


Research shows that how a doctor shares news directly influences the patient’s healing


Dr. Lissa Rankin, author of Mind over Medicine, has spent years researching the impact of the doctor-patient relationships on our ability to heal. She has proven that what your doctor believes really matters. If they believe something will or won’t work, that’s likely to become a reality. Also, when they treat the patient with care and nurturing, healing is more likely.


In the same way, the absence of care can actually harm you.


Studies show that when doctors deliver news without care, the fear response triggers actual physiological changes in the body. In a few cases this stress response has resulted in death – without any physical reason in the first place! Yikes! Maybe doctors are Gods afterall!

Just kidding.


The point is that we should be taking a far more active role in our own health.


When dealing with absolutely anything to do with our bodies, our health, our lives, shouldn’t we be the ones in charge? Shouldn’t we be using the advice of doctors as we might business consultants - listening and challenging, but ultimately making the final decision ourselves?

When a doctor waves a vague outcome at us or suggests a radical and seemingly invalidated measure, here is what I think we should be doing:


Question and challenge at every opportunity

Ask every question you can think of. Challenge his interpretation of the results. Ask for the full range of options. Ask for evidence of why she believes this is the best solution.


Get a second opinion

All data can be interpreted in any number of ways, as can the ideal course of action. Ask someone else. Then ask a third person. Keep going until you feel satisfied you have enough information to make an informed decision.


Separate facts from scare-factors

Ask your doctor to break the story down into facts. No extreme language, no exaggerations. Just plain facts. If there’s going to be high emotion, it should be yours, and it’s their job to balance that.


Tell your doctor how you would like them to handle your relationship

Speak to your doctor about what you need from them. In the same way we might ‘contract’ with our partners or colleagues, we can set expectations and state our needs of our health care practitioners: “I need you to remain positive at all times”. “I need you to tell me about all the alternatives available, even if you can’t vouch for them”.


At the end of the day it’s about you taking responsibility for your own health and making an informed decision.


We can’t expect anyone to treat our health with love and respect if we don’t do so ourselves.