How much information should doctors give to patients?


In my over three decades of family practice, I have come to the conclusion that we, as doctors, should provide non-medical people with as much medical information as we can. Not as much as we think they should have, or information just related to the problem at hand, but as much as we can provide. Period.

I started practicing when many still debated whether we should tell a patient if he or she had end-stage cancer and how bad it might be. No one dared question the doctor. Of course, that was about the time I was debating whether I should buy a fax machine and what I might do with it if I had it. Home computers were to keep recipes organized and not for much more.

Now, I not only explain to my patient my diagnostic thought process, but why they don’t really need the treatment or test they’ve read about at a dubious website.

Overall, though, I think this new, almost infinite pool of knowledge is a good thing. In fact, within the last few years, I’ve jumped into the pool headfirst and fully immersed myself. I’ve tried to use every media resource available to teach everyday people as much mainstream medical information as they’re willing, and able, to digest. I figure if I, as a doctor, don’t do it, there are plenty of non-mainstream medical sources that will fill the gap. I also believe education continues to be one of the most cost-effective but underused methods to improve individual and overall quality of care.

Of course, one of the best ways for people to get the most up-to-date and reliable medical information is to hear it from their treating doctor’s mouth. But even that can be more complicated that it appears.

Some patients just don’t have the knack of listening well, especially while in a stressful setting like a doctor’s office or hospital. And I think we all know, some doctors are not good teachers. Using handouts, anatomy models, or diagrams, can help. But we don’t have much time to teach during patient visits. And from what I’ve seen, whatever we’re doing is just not working. Many people don’t know even the basics of medicine, and what they think they know is often wrong.

For the last 10 years, I’ve spent a great deal of my time pondering this dilemma. I’ve taught in as many mediums as I know how. I launched a magazine and accompanying website and I’ve made videos and taught through social media. I’ve written books and done radio and television interviews. But my current attempt is the one that goes the most in-depth about medical treatments.

At present, I’m teaching people how to survive medial problems during disasters — when they can’t get to a doctor. I’ve reached out to preppers, survivalists, homesteaders, and anyone with an interest in knowing what to do for medical problems during disasters or any time it’s impossible to get expert medical help. I believe the information will also serve them well in their everyday health decisions.

So, I wonder, what do my colleagues think of this? Should we, as doctors, educate non-medical people with as much mainstream medical knowledge — even treatments — as we can, in as many formats as we can, and trust them to be able to use this knowledge without our constant surveillance, or is that just opening a Pandora’s box?

James Hubbard is a family physician and can be reached on The Survival Doctor.  He is the author of The Survival Doctor’s Guide to Wounds and The Survival Doctor’s Guide to Burns.


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