I have been reading “The Hippocratic Myth” by M. Gregg Bloche MD. As a good book always does, it has given me a great deal to ponder at odd moments during the day.
While reading, I found myself engaged in internal debate regarding the obligations inherent in the doctor/patient relationship. Is the nature of this important relationship one between equals, between a superior and inferior? A relationship of trust, one of dependency, or simply a contract between a consumer and the person hired to perform a service?
The fact that the answers to the question are “all, some and none of the above,” depending on the situation, makes defining the roles of doctor and patient very difficult. However, in all cases, physicians and patients owe each other certain basic obligations. My own personal list of these duties is as follows:
Doctors owe Patients
- Respect as a fellow human. A patient is not “the cardiac case in Room 3”. The doctor is not omniscient or omnipotent and should never act as if she is.
- Respect for their time. Doctors have limited time to treat patients; people do understand this and are usually willing to wait a reasonable amount of time. However, after an hour and a half in the waiting room with no explanation, a patient is clearly not being respected.
- Read the chart before entering the room. This simple act can prevent many misunderstandings and clinical confusions.
- Keep the patient’s information private and confidential.
- Provide evidence-based care. Doctors owe it to their patients to stay current on research and clinical trial results in order to provide the best care available, even when the new evidence contradicts what the doctor learned in medical school.
- Respect informed decision-making. The doctor can and should provide his absolute best medical opinion. However, the patient is the ultimate decision-maker and all physicians should support the goal of having well-informed patients making the best decisions for themselves.
Patients owe Doctors
- Honesty. Doctors cannot provide effective care if a patient fails to disclose aspects relevant to their condition and treatment options
- Respect for their time. This one works both ways. A respectful patient will be prepared for his appointment and have a concise list of questions or issues to discuss, not spend precious minutes trying to remember something he thought about the night before.
- Prompt payment. Increasingly, doctors are getting squeezed between patients’ own economic challenges, the insurance companies’ failure to provide coverage due to some glitch or technicality. Physicians are carrying this financial burden, sometimes for a year or more.
- Adherence to prescribed treatment. The patient has an obligation to adhere to a treatment as it is prescribed by the doctor, provided that the treatment is not making things worse, and that the prescribing physician is available for communication regarding the results and possible side effects of the treatment, and open to adjusting the treatment if the patient is not responding well.
By recognizing and being mindful of these obligations and responsibilities to each other, the physician/patient relationship would proceed more smoothly and easily that we often encounter.
Guest Editor: Debora Harvey, Patient Navigator LLC