Knowledge is Power

Few occupations enjoy as much respect and authority as the medical profession. This is not only true in our society where only academically trained and licensed professionals can practice what is known as Western medicine. Most cultures around the world hold the practitioners of medicine in high esteem as people whose knowledge and skill endow them with special powers.

This attitude is quite understandable. We all are deeply invested in our faith in the art of medicine. There’s little else that is as important to us as our health. When we fall ill, we’re ready to give anything to get well again. Almost all other concerns in life pale by comparison.

So, it is only natural that, when we get sick, we are all too willing to hand ourselves over to the care of medical professionals and institutions that we trust to have the knowledge and power to restore our health. In my experience, most patients have nearly unlimited trust in the abilities of the medical profession once they depend on it. I certainly was brought up in the belief that doctors “knew exactly what to do” and that their “orders” had to be followed without questioning – and, for the most part of my life, I did just that.

Things have changed in recent years, at least to a certain extent. In his book “How Doctors Think,” Dr. Jerome Groopman M.D. of Harvard Medical School encourages the public to adopt a different view of his profession. He argues that the traditional boundaries between the role of medical professionals as care-givers and patients as care-receivers may have been drawn too sharply in our existing system. Therefore, patients should try to engage more actively in a partnership with their doctors and get more involved in the diagnostic and therapeutic process than it is mostly the case.

Dr. Groopman’s book was an instant best-seller. It showed that there is a tremendous interest in “do-it-yourself” medical research out there – probably for a number of reasons. The public is generally better educated and comfortable with scientific terminology. Direct access to information about health matters is instantly available through the Internet with tens of thousands of websites and blogs dedicated to the subject of health and wellness. Because of widespread lack of health care coverage and HMO-imposed time limits for face-time with their physicians, more people find it necessary to do some research of their own. And, of course, the pharmaceutical industry also spares no effort to keep us continuously updated on its latest breakthrough achievements – so patients can share these “news” with their doctors at their next visit.

In general, I think this is a positive development, not only for patients but for the medical profession as well. Doctors should not see it as a threat to their authority when they are being asked questions by an informed clientele. In fact, most physicians I know welcome and encourage more active patient involvement. Better informed patients feel more empowered and are more likely to take responsibility in the therapeutic process.

But there is a downside as well. Not everyone handles information the same way. Patients (and their loved ones) are usually extremely motivated to learn everything there is to know about the illness they’ve been diagnosed with – especially when they face something serious. Some get overwhelmed, some get paranoid. As soon as they hear or read about certain symptoms, they identify them as their own. In some cases, that can do more harm then good.

The goal is to strike a balance. A functional relationship between physicians and patients can only be developed and maintained if both sides do their part. Even the best-educated patients must be able to trust that their doctors are competent and will do everything in their power to help them. Doctors need to take into account that their clients are not necessarily ignorant about the medical facts and that they want to be taken seriously as partners in their own therapy with a vested interest in the outcome.

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