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Story by DANIEL WALTERS and ANNE MCGREGOR
As a family care physician, Dr. John McCarthy will, over the course of visits during your life, tell you a few words you don’t want to hear.
You probably shouldn’t go tanning. You’re overweight. You should eat vegetables, exercise more. Oh, and you should take these pills every six hours.
And yet, on your next visit to Dr. McCarthy again, you haven’t done any of it.
Doctors, dieticians and dentists all give pretty effective advice. And they all can get a little frustrated when you ignore it. A 1987 study in Social Science and Medicine found that, for a majority of the sample, patient non-compliance not only frustrated doctors, it had the potential to become an “ego-threatening event” event for them. It takes a particularly skilled doctor, the study says, to find creative ways to convince the non-compliant patient to take advice instead of simply getting defensive.
Then again, being healthy is hard.
“If it was easy, people would jump on it,” McCarthy says. “We have fast-food advertising hitting us right and left, we have food available all over the place. We’ve built cities designed for automobiles, not bikes and pedestrians. People in poverty can get a lot of cheap but fattening foods readily … [And] it’s very hard to change behaviors that are ingrained from childhood.”
Persuading patients to take their medication, too, can be a challenge. McCarthy gives the example of certain hypertension medications. For some, there are significant side effects — “You can lose erectile function,” McCarthy says. So some will simply stop taking their meds. Hypertension doesn’t hurt — it just kills you, after a while.
Doctors continually have to figure out ways to encourage patients to talk about problems with their medications instead of just abandoning the treatment, McCarthy says.
Then there’s another problem not widely discussed — patients lie. Frankly, it’s a little embarrassing to tell your doctor that yes, you’re still drinking and you haven’t exactly changed you diet or started exercising. McCarthy suspects patient non-compliance has become a little worse over the years. With the abundance of sometimes contradictory medical advice from a variety of sources, doctors’ voices can carry a little less gravitas.
In the end, it simply comes down to patient education and establishing trust — something that can’t be done in the emergency room.
“If I’ve seen this patient for 10 years … They trust me. At times they’ll trust me with their life,” McCarthy says. “Emergency rooms, you don’t have that relationship. A friend is going to be someone you’re going to listen to more readily than someone you met for seven minutes.”
Dr. Pfifferling Says
Patients who receive written instructions may be more likely to comply because the load of information at a doctor visit can overwhelm many people. “If you’ve just told me I’ve got pancreatic cancer, I’m not going to hear the rest of the conversation,” Pfifferling says.
Similarly, encouraging patients to have someone accompany them can be very helpful. “My mother goes to the doctor, and I go with her,” says Pfifferling. He listens for the details. “She’s just so happy they were nice to her,” he laughs.
And then there’s the follow-up call. “No one’s going to pay for that — but it is good medicine,” says Pfifferling. For some conditions, it may just be a pleasantry; there are other areas where it is “incredibly important.”
While there may be no direct compensation for the follow-up call, it might just pay off in the long run. Enhanced communication may reduce the risk that a patient will sue the doctor. “The better the communication,” Pfifferling says, “the better the relationship.”
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