Patients need to overcome the fear of asking questions

Today’s healthcare consumers are increasingly asked to take a more participatory role in their care. For many this is a daunting task – even if the patient desires being in the driver’s seat. There are a myriad of issues undermining patient-physician communication – such as time constraints, lack of comfort with the subject matter, lack of shared language, or even fear – that can make the task of being an empowered patient akin to trying to assemble a puzzle with several pieces missing.

In the recent New York Times article “Afraid to Speak Up at the Doctor’s Office”, Pauline Chen, MD, suggests that patients often feel “trapped” in communication patterns with their physicians. This phenomenon is not unique to patient and physician. As a graduate student, I taught a freshman-level communication class in which we called these ongoing communication challenges URPs – or Undesirable Repetitive Patterns. Addressing and correcting the common patient/physician URPs are important factors to improving communication.

In my professional experience, I consistently encounter a specific example of the classic “he said/she said” scenario with regard to patient/physician relations. On the patient side, I have never conducted a patient focus group when at least one did not say something to the effect of:

“It feels like my doctor doesn’t listen to me. All s/he wants to do is write me a prescription for something.”

Conversely, in focus groups with physicians, it is rare that I do not hear one say:

“Patients really don’t seem to be listening. All they want is for me to write them a prescription that they don’t really need.”

Although, the sentiments are simplified a bit here, the intent, and underlying issue, does not change. In this case, the lack of a shared perspective is leading to more medications begin prescribed than maybe anybody really wants or needs. Both patients and physicians have a role to play to help prevent this.

From my own experience as a patient, I know that trying to achieve a common ground can take a lot of, well, work.  Case in point: I am now one year out from my own cancer diagnosis and I still don’t really know what my care plan is. I know the plan exists, because several providers have made reference to it. The important parts seem to get dribbled out in bits and pieces in various doctor appointments, so I’ve pieced together the big picture, but I don’t have anything in writing. As a result, I don’t really have a sense of cohesiveness, or a nuanced understanding of what I might experience along the way, or even what’s expected of me as a patient.

I know better than this. I’ve asked about it a couple of times, but know that I should be pushing harder. But, that would probably require multiple phone calls and the navigation of umpteen voice mail systems and, quite frankly, it’s easier to just do a little internet research on a rainy Saturday to find out whether such-and-so is a medication side effect or if I should call the doctor about a new symptom I’m having or just deal with it. I’m soon to arrive at a key decision point in my care, and although I’ll be actively involved in making a choice, I’m not sure it could truly be called “shared decision making.” My choice will be made based on possibly incomplete information received in disparate office visits and data I’ve culled from various sources that may or may not be applicable to me. What’s really being “shared” here?  On the patient side, there is value in gathering information from multiple sources. Physicians continually glean knowledge from new research or the experience of their own patients.  These asynchronous discussions need to be linked to ensure a collaborative process.

How can we break out of these URPs at the physician’s office? Not unlike the patient, the doctor will often favor the path of least resistance. When I probe further about patients asking for unnecessary prescriptions, physicians describe it as the challenge of “getting to ‘no’.” For a busy physician, it is more efficient to write the prescription than it is to help the patient understand why s/he doesn’t need it.

Communication is always a two-way street. For patients, this might mean working to overcome the fear of asking questions and being persistent about getting the answers when necessary. For physicians, this might mean identifying a mechanism for patients to ask questions and acquire the information they need (which may translate to leveraging other members of the care team). We stay in URPs because it’s what we know. It’s always going to be easier to do it the way we’ve always done it. In an environment where both physician and patients can commit to doing it differently, new and beneficial communication patterns can emerge.

Beth Austin is a patient and consumer engagement advocate who blogs at Crescendo Consulting Group blog

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