Without doubt, communication is crucial to good health care. When people take an active role in their care, research shows they fare better -- in satisfaction and in how well treatments work. A passive patient is less likely to get well.
Yet patients often don't speak up for themselves, says Dr. Paul Haidet, staff physician at the DeBakey VA Medical Center, in Houston.
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Haidet learned this lesson first hand with a new patient complaining of a cough. A 50-year-old Boston dockworker with no serious illness in his past, the patient said the cough had been hanging on for three weeks. Haidet noted the details, performed a physical exam, and diagnosed an upper respiratory tract infection.
"The guy had a cold," Haidet tells WebMD. He recommended cough syrup and was about to leave, but something gave him pause. The patient "just had this weird look on his face," Haidet recalls.
Haidet learned that the man's best friend had recently died of lung cancer and when his friend was diagnosed, he had a very similar cough. As a longtime pack-a-day smoker, the patient was afraid his number was finally up.
The Ideal Doctor-Patient Relationship
Chest X-rays eventually showed the patient had no tumors, but Haidet was astonished by the difference between what he thought the visit was about and what the real reason was. He had assumed the man wanted him to treat his cold, but he really wanted to be assured that he didn't have lungcancer.
Haidet, who now runs part of a program at Baylor College of Medicine that helps people communicate with their doctors, feels sure that the patient "would have kept going to doctors until somebody unlocked that story and addressed the real issue for that visit."
The ideal doctor-patient relationship, says Haidet, is like a meeting of two "experts." The doctor comes to the meeting with medical expertise. "The patient is entering with contextual knowledge, what these symptoms mean in the broader context of my life, and what kinds of therapies that broader context is going to support," he says.
So, how do you manage an "expert" meeting of the minds with your doctor?