There are a lot of people who will accuse me of being a tactless loudmouth, to which I usually respond “Yeah, so what’s your point?” It’s true. While I do wish I was a little more subtle, I find subtlety is sometimes over-rated. Yes, it’s good if we don’t bruise our friends’ feelings, but frankly, a lot of my friends are a lot like me: well-meaningly blunt!
It’s one thing if you’re trying to tell your future father-in-law that you don’t want him wearing his Bugs Bunny tie to your wedding without hurting his feelings but it’s another if you’re sitting in your doctor’s office and she’s giving you only five minutes to discuss your concerns over side effects of the medication she’s giving you. Your doctor is a professional who works for you: it’s her job to listen to her patient (you!) while your future father-in-law should be treated with respect, if not for his own sake, then for your future spouse’s.
This is one of those situations where being a tactless loudmouth actually works in my favor. I am not afraid to voice my opinion to my doctor or other health professional. I am also fairly lucky since I am not a victim of White Coat Syndrome (WCS). For a long time, I really didn’t know how many people suffered from WCS until I started watching some of those reality medical shows where lots of patients came in either tongue-tied or visibly nervous because they have to see a doctor. My mom was a registered nurse (RN) while I was a kid and nearly every day, I’d hear about how this doctor or that surgeon didn’t know what he/ she was doing or how they nearly screwed up (or really screwed up). I heard how one doctor chose to fix a dislocated shoulder by planting his foot in the patient’s armpit and yanking the arm really hard! (Cue Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon 2!) Obviously, it didn’t work: the doctor not only didn’t pop the shoulder back into place– he broke it, leaving the patient unable to raise his arm over his head. While this incident was way out there, I heard plenty of stories of doctors doing ordinary mistakes like ordinary people. I’d also met about a hundred doctors by the time I was out of high school: these were the people my mom worked with so I’d talk to them on the phone or say hi when I went with my mom to pick up something she left at work. To me, they were like those geniuses who might be able to calculate pi to 8 digits in their head but forget where they left their car keys. “White Coat Syndrome? You mean people really are intimidated by doctors?!”
As a result of seeing behind the curtain in the health care world, I grew up seeing doctors as any other skilled professional I’d hire to do things I can’t do myself. So when I meet with my doctor or any health care professional, I make a list of questions and I’m not afraid of asking “why” or “what if.” This is our health and our bodies they are treating but most of us grow up not questioning our doctors or the medication they are giving us. We tend to ask more questions about the repairs to our cars or computers than we do about the prescription our doctor just called in to our pharmacy.
Most of us are used to trusting our doctors or at least not asking questions. There’s a reason I read the little pamphlet that comes with the medication and I usually google the medication as well. The main reasons to read the informational pamphlet has to do with side effects, drug interactions and how to take the medication correctly. When you pick up your prescriptions, you might have noticed there are warning labels on some of them. A lot of times, if it’s a new prescription, they will have you wait to speak to the pharmacist before they give you the medication. This is because most people don’t read the labels or the instructions: some medications can kill you if you take them with another medication! This is why it’s usually a good idea to have only one pharmacy! The pharmacist can see everything that has been prescribed to you and usually she/ he (or the computer) will catch a fatal interaction. It doesn’t have to be medication either: some vitamin supplements in high doses can also make you sick. We need to remind ourselves it’s important to ask our doctors about our options for medication and for treatment!
A couple of years ago, a friend of mine fell off her porch and injured her knee badly. She saw the orthopedist she was referred to, who promptly told her she needed a knee replacement. It’s an invasive and painful surgery and at this point she’d hardly had more than a couple of weeks to recover from the injury. She asked for a second opinion and another orthopedist sent her to physical therapy (“let’s try this and see where you are after a few weeks.”) Two years later, her knee is fully healed and it’s not made of metal! No replacement– just two months of therapy and exercise!
Of course, the second orthopedist could have suggested the same surgery or the therapy could have been ineffective and she could have ended up with a replacement anyway. The point is that just because your doctor makes a recommendation doesn’t mean it’s the Only Option Available. Back to the car analogy, most of us don’t buy the first car the salesman shows us or even the first car we test-drive! We look at a few and some of us look at a lot and at a lot of different places! A respectable doctor (as in one you can trust) will not fault you for seeking a second opinion, especially if surgery is involved.
Since doctors are ordinary people, they are prone to making the same mistakes ordinary people do. They also want a quick fix and a simple solution, even if it means giving patients drugs or surgery that could have life altering effects. There are some doctors who will also give the patients the procedure or medication they ask for, whether it’s the best option for them or not. There are a lot of drug commercials now that tell you all the great benefits of the drugs and tend to minimize the side effects. These commercials usually end telling you to “ask your doctor about XYZ today!”
One of the things I learned growing up around the health care profession is that if I want to learn about a medication, I am NOT going to ask my doctor: I’m going to ask the pharmacist! The biggest information source for doctors about medications are the drug companies! They get little pamphlets about the drugs with samples to give to their patients. The drug companies send representatives to promote (dare I say “push”?) the drugs and persuade doctors to prescribe their drugs to patients. The people who know the most about the drugs, how they work, side effects and interactions are the pharmacists!
I know that one reason some of us don’t like doctors is that we are afraid of bad news or getting ‘yelled at’ by our doctors. We think that if we don’t go to the doctor, we won’t be sick or we don’t have to be embarrassed by whatever they’re going to tell us. I know I avoided doctors for a long time because they were always going to tell me to lose weight and I hated being told that (hello! 300-plus lbs! I know I need to lose weight!) But when we go, we have to be ready to ask questions and be proactive with our treatment. Not being assertive can be deadly.
One of my friends who also had a weight problem went to her doctor who put her on a pair of ‘miracle’ weight loss drugs to lose weight fast: fen-phen. Yes, she lost weight. Until she developed heart problems and had to have a valve in her heart replaced! I remember being shocked because she was younger than I was and had never had heart problems despite her weight. The heart problems came from the drugs. She trusted her doctor who trusted the drug companies. The two drugs fenfluramine and phentermine (both appetite suppressants) had not been approved for use in combination with each other. I’m not sure google would have helped much (1990’s) and like most of us, she was desperate to lose weight, but this is where doing a little research (her doctor’s job!) could have spared her a lot of distress, not to mention serious surgery!
When it comes to our own health, we need to be our own advocates. Most of us do more research when we buy a new car than we do on our doctors, our medications and even any procedures or tests they do on us! Our doctors get our test results back and we rely on what they say “it’s good!” or “you need to get your good cholesterol up!” Do we look at the numbers? Do we look at the x-rays? It matters and it’s okay to say “I want a second opinion!”
Most of us are so eager for simple quick fixes to difficult health issues that I can hardly fault my friend. I probably would have made the same choice in her situation! But seeing what happened to her has made me seriously suspicious of drugs and procedures that promise simple easy results. Maybe I’m just too stubborn to take the easy route, especially with weight loss, but what are the side effects to eating better and being more active? Better nutrition and more muscles? I can live with those side effects and my own doctor agrees with me!