As patients, we all like to think our doctors are on top of their game — they know everything there is to know about our particular health problem. We like to think this because we are putting our health and our lives in their hands.
However, what we really should be thinking is how can doctors stay current on all the new developments, knowledge and recommended treatments available? After all, there are so many new medical findings/reports given everyday it is impossible for any one doctor to stay current in all areas of medicine. It is even a challenge for a doctor to stay current in one specialized area of medicine.
Yes, doctors are required to take continuing education classes, but the number of hours required per year is minimal compared to all the new medical information available each and every day. To stay current, doctors need to make a concerted effort to learn what is new in their particular practicing area. Doctors who are expert lecturers even hire full-time staff to review all the available new medical information. That is how they stay current and can be considered experts.
The point of sharing these thoughts with you is, no matter how good your doctors are there may come a day when they cannot answer your specific questions. They may not know about a particular new treatment, may not know about a change in the current standard of care. You, the patient, may find yourself educating your doctors about something you have read. Think this is not likely to happen, then think again! This happens much more often than we like to admit. Here is an example of a real-life situation a friend recently shared with me . . .
Sarah (not her real name) recently told me she had been feeling very tired and was gaining weight. Her doctor was running some blood tests and was checking her thyroid function. She would know about her test results in a few days. A few days later she told me her blood tests came back fine, within the normal lab ranges. I asked her what her TSH value was and she said it was 4.8. Her doctor thought they could repeat tests in about 3 months.
I was shocked to hear her doctor thought a TSH of 4.8 was normal. I thought she was probably becoming hypothyroid. I explained to her that the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists (AACE) established new guidelines in 2003 for the TSH range and the new normal range for TSH is now 0.3 to 3.04. Using this narrower range, Sarah would be considered hypothyroid (not enough thyroid hormone) and would be given thyroid supplements.
I suggested Sarah visit the AACE website [http://www.aace.com/newsroom/press/2003/index.php?r=20030118] or Mary Shomon’s thyroid column at http://www.about.com to learn more. (Mary Shomon is the guide for thyroid issues and she provides patients with a great deal of helpful thyroid information.) I encouraged Sarah to speak with her doctor now and not wait three months. Sarah’s doctor was following old standards and most likely did not know about the narrower TSH range. Her doctor was just reading the range the laboratory provided instead of following the new guidelines.
Sarah’s situation is just one example of a doctor not knowing the latest information. In case you find yourself in a similar situation, here are some helpful tips when educating your doctor:
Do your health homework. No matter what doctor you see, you need to verify and discover information yourself. Go to reputable medical sources on-line and print out copies of information you want to discuss with your doctor. Reputable medical sources are sites run by well-known doctors, organizations, or universities like http://www.webmd.com or http://www.americanheart.org. Avoid sites written by unknown individuals merely express an opinion and not verifiable facts. For rarer medical information, visit medical libraries and ask the librarian for assistance in finding answers to the questions you have. No matter how you do your homework — have a hard copy to show your doctor.
Ask your doctor for some time to answer your questions and show him or her printed material. They may want to see the specifics for themselves before they can comment. One of several scenarios should then follow: The best scenario would be for your doctor to already be aware of the information you are providing and for you both to have a thorough discussion about it. The next best scenario would be for your doctor to be unaware of the information and for him or her to be willing to look into if further for you or refer you to someone who is more knowledgeable in that area. Perhaps the worst scenario would be for your doctor to be unaware of the information and be unwilling to take the time to discuss it with you.
Smart doctors will react to information a patient presents by either already knowing the information or by wanting to know more about the new information. Smart doctors know they can always keep learning and they are not offended by patients asking questions and providing information. They are often grateful for patients who bring important issues to their attention because it may help them treat other patients better in the future. You should seek out doctors who are willing to discuss information with you and have a true partnership relationship when it comes to your care.
On the flip side, you should avoid doctors who are unwilling to discuss new information with you. If they are too busy to answer your questions, then you don’t need them. Stay with them only long enough to find a new doctor who will have a quality doctor-patient relationship with you. You need a doctor who has your best interests in mind. Remember in the end, it’s your or your loved one’s health at stake.
Doctors are human beings too. They genuinely want to help people. That is why they went into medicine in the first place. Just like you, they have many time pressures on them and in this fast-paced world it is not easy to keep up on everything new in medicine. Give your doctors the opportunity and flexibility to help you before you decide to move on. If they are willing to spend time answering your questions, but ask to do so at an alternative time or by an alternative means, then try being understanding and work with them. Some doctors have a time during the day when they are more easily able to speak with patients by phone or some will even communicate with patients via e-mail. The best solution is to find a way to get your questions answered that works for both you and your doctor.
Dr. Donna Pikula is an award-winning health care writer and speaker who helps people become smarter patients. Smarter patients know how to receive the health care they deserve for themselves and their loved ones, while reducing their chances of suffering from medical errors. Dr. Pikula invites you to visit [http://books2helpyou.com] to learn more about the award-winning book After the Diagnosis: How to Look Out for Yourself or a Loved One and its companion notebook, My Medical Organizer. While visiting, we also encourage you to discover other SMART patient tips and sign-up for our monthly health newsletter!