Can a doctor dodging a question help the patient?

Doctor D has dodged some questions in his career, but he has also been on the receiving end of some non-answers and can attest to their usefulness on the patient’s side of things.

How can a doctor dodging a question help the patient?

Let me tell you a story:

Doctor D’s son Little D was born with a very rare genetic condition which required he see an expert at a big university. As a parent I can tell you that this sucks. Lady D and I did a lot of worrying about our baby.

Medical people are often the worst patients. We know just enough to be really difficult. Or we just know too much, and it gets in the way of our common sense.

Doctor D had never even heard of his son’s super rare disease so he read everything he could find. Unfortunately the mutation was so rare that research was almost non-existent. Doctor D read every published study on the disease an found more questions than answers.

The poor Expertologist got way too many questions from Doctor D. Some he answered. Others he totally dodged. Near the end of the appointment Doctor D asked a very specific question about a potential complication.

The Expertologist smiled and said, “Oh, I think he’ll grow up and play sports and have kids of his own some day.”

Doctor D was totally frustrated. “I’m an MD! Of course, I know that this mutation doesn’t affect the reproductive system or the muscles. You didn’t answer my specific question!” Yeah, I considered yelling that, but instead I smiled and left the office.

I still don’t know why the Expertologist gave me a non-answer. Maybe no one knew the answer? Maybe a full answer would have taken a long discussion of probabilities and complex research he didn’t have time for? Maybe he was just sick of this non-expert doctor who asked so many questions?

Doctor D was pissed. But on the way home Doctor D looked in the rearview mirror at his sleeping baby and realized that vague answer had been just what he needed to hear: “Chill out, Doctor D. Your kid is doing fine. He’ll be okay.”

And you know what? Little D is doing just fine.

Sometimes patients don’t need factual answers. Doctor D had hundreds of questions tumbling around in his over-educated head. Expertologist could have taken all day answering every question, but the real question was “Is my kid alright?”

This brilliant Expertologist totally dodged even trying to answer my question and told me what I needed to hear, “You kid is okay.”

Doctor D is a physician who blogs at Ask An MD.

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