Is The Empowered Patient too adversarial?

I understand the frustration and anger in CNN Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen’s new book, The Empowered Patient.  I agree that all of the horrible patient stories should have never occurred.  As a practicing primary care doctor who has witnessed near misses and bad medical outcomes affect family members, I too wrote a book encouraging patients to be informed and engaged about their care.

The problem is that The Empowered Patient is too adversarial.  If anything, it is biased, which is completely understandable given the failings of the healthcare system, and is not balanced.  If she had wanted a book that helped patients be informed, engaged, and a true partner in health, she falls far short.  Those of us working to make the healthcare system safer and more patient focused will find ourselves on the defensive as soon as we walk through the door if patients follow everything she says.

Chapter titles include How to Be a “Bad Patient” and How to Find Dr. Right (and Fire Dr. Wrong).  She reminds readers that “your relationship with your doctor is a business relationship. You pay her, and she takes care of your medical problems.  End of story.” Readers should consider firing their doctor if they “repeatedly have to spend inordinate amounts of time in the waiting room (more than fifteen minutes or so)”.  Yet, she hopes readers can find Dr. Right, someone who is an excellent communicator and someone you can trust and feel good about.

Through her stories in How to Get Good Drugs Cheap and Don’t Fall for Medical Marketing, Cohen implies that all doctors are influenced by drug reps, on the payroll of pharmaceutical companies, and only write expensive brand name medications.  She completely ignores how direct to consumer advertising cause patients to demand these “me too” drugs.

She doesn’t highlight the studies that show doctors when faced with this situation, though ambivalent, often acquiesce.  Cohen suggests that readers ask their doctors if they have “any financial ties to a drug or device company”.

In the section How to Avoid a Misdiagnosis, she illustrates two patients who could have died because doctors were about to begin chemotherapy and radiation treatments based on erroneous diagnoses. Using the internet, it was clearly apparent to the patients that the rare condition they supposedly had didn’t apply to them.  They didn’t fit the typical patient description for the illness.  The doctors’ failings were that they relied too heavily on the pathology reports. They should have looked at the complete picture and the pathology report in the context of the patient.  Instead, they anchored their decision solely on the pathology report.

Again, Cohen is completely silent about the patient aspect.  The same anchoring phenomenon can and has been occurring with patients. Increasingly far more patients are focused on what the test showed, whether blood work or CT scans and MRIs, instead of what makes sense based on a patient’s history and examination.  Patients are being to avoid office visits relying on technology to provide answers when these are simply tools and not necessarily the truth.

Armed with her information it is impossible to see if it is possible for anyone to find a Dr. Right or a time when patients can focus on getting better instead of being very vigilant at every point of care to the level of paranoia.  Perhaps that wasn’t her intent, but as a doctor on the frontline it is hard to see any other interpretation.

Though Cohen rightly notes that 99,000 Americans die annually from hospitalized infections and that 98,000 die from medical errors in the hospitals, she also ignored that 100,000 deaths could be averted if simple important interventions occurred.  Patients with hypertension had their blood pressure controlled.  Patients with heart disease had their cholesterol controlled.  Women at age 40 begin screening for breast cancer.  Both men and women at age 50 get screened for colon cancer.  Surely these are equally as important issues for empowered patients?

There were a few of sections that were worthwhile – How to Become an Internet MD, gives excellent and thoughtful advice on how patients can use the internet, Don’t Let a Hospital Kill You, and You vs. the Insurance Industry.

If there was any silver lining in her book, then it is as doctors working in an incredibly complex system comparable to environments associated with airline pilots, military aviators, and astronauts, we must do much better.  Saying medicine is different is not acceptable. We need to adopt highly reliable systems, systematically improve training to minimize inherent unconscious bias, and a serious dose of humility in understanding that patients concerns are legitimate and must be addressed.

Davis Liu is a family physician who blogs at Saving Money and Surviving the Healthcare Crisis and is the author of The Thrifty Patient – Vital Insider Tips for Saving Money and Staying Healthy and Stay Healthy, Live Longer, Spend Wisely.

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