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Speaking to Your Doctor

The key to health may be knowing when to listen, when to talk.


Groopman: Yes, the power of stories. That's why I wrote in this format instead of a self-help book or "Ten Things to Ask When You Go to the Doctor." I hope that people who hear my story will think "Here's a highly educated and hard-driving physician, and he's still placed in this position." That can be very informative.

This is the greatest challenge for doctors -- when you have someone who's never been exposed to disability and he wants a quick fix and has this concept of returning posthaste to a former level. That illusion -- because healing doesn't work that way -- can be very dangerous. I had two close friends who recently had ruptured discs and were in a similar situation. I prevailed on them not to be impulsive.

WebMD: It seems as if we need to be most assertive and active when we feel sickest. How can we do that?

Groopman: We need a family member or friend or someone to be with us and advocate for us because it's very difficult otherwise. When I had my ruptured disc, if I had taken my wife with me, she might have said something like, "Look, Jerry's an impulsive guy who's addicted to running and isn't listening because he has his heart set on the Boston Marathon." That might have given my surgeon pause. It might have given me pause.

WebMD: In one of your stories, you touch on the privileged life of the academic/research doctor. The HMO doctor told you to "come down from your ivory tower" and complained about how many patients he has to see. What can we do about the fact that most of us are seeing doctors who have budgeted 10 to 15 minutes for us? (See How Do You Know Your Doctors Are Listening?)

Groopman: This is the key issue -- this and choice -- with regard to our health plans now. I think everyone is unhappy with the current medical system -- patients, doctors, nurses. We need to restore time for patients or we're not going to be able to deliver effective and satisfactory health care.

WebMD: You write about your spiritual life and belief in the unexpected. What did you learn from your patient who had a melanoma and lost a lottery to participate in the clinical trial of a drug you were researching? The patient ended up miraculously curedon a drug you felt might only hold him for a few months.

Groopman: As I said in the book, my colleague called me Pygmalion and said I was deeply in love with my own work. The drug we were so excited about ended up having no meaningful effect on human cancer. Men were not mice. I was intoxicated by laboratory science, when I should have scrutinized the research with humility.

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