Friday, September 5, 2014

An example of the insensitivity of modern medicine

I am often appalled by the insensitivity the medical profession can show towards its patients.  Hidden within the well-intentioned aim of ensuring that patients are not banished from any discussion about what the future course of an illness is thought likely to be, doctors have started to err on the side of telling patients too much about the possible implications of some slight symptom or some tiny deviation from the normal in the results of some medical test or other.  In so doing, they seem to forget that they are handing over the kind of information which is likely to frighten their patients.

I recently heard an example of this.  A friend of mine went for a general check-up to a newly-appointed doctor at her medical practice who conscientiously read through all her notes to familiarize himself with what was wrong with her.  She had had a slight stroke some years back and was on medication to stabilize her heart.  The doctor looked up from his notes, and said “You realise, don’t you, that it says here that you are likely to get Alzheimers at some point in the future.”  Apparently some research had shown a correlation between having a stroke and Alzheimers.

I asked my friend how hearing this had affected her.  She is a very balanced, practical person with a good deal of understanding of medical matters and a sensible approach to her own health, certainly not the sort of person who would indulge in worrying excessively about what the future held for her.  But she said that, despite her best efforts to ignore what she had been told, his words were still preying on her mind and had changed her approach to how she viewed her health.  And yet there was no indication whatsoever of her having the slightest symptom of Alzheimers, nor was there any medical or lifestyle advice which the doctor could have suggested to reduce the “likelihood” of it occurring in the future.  So what possible purpose, apart from making her fearful, had telling her this served? 

My father, who was a doctor, always said that he had seen so many miracles in his long medical practice that he learned never to predict the course of an illness, and to take away hope was in effect condemning a patient to an earlier death.  A little bit of hope was taken away from my friend yesterday by those few words, spoken no doubt with the best of intentions, but unfortunately with the worst of results.

We should never take away a patient’s hope.  We don’t have to pretend, even if it is obvious that a person is close to death, and we need to answer truthfully if asked, but if a patient wants to pretend that they have more time than we think they have that is their right.  And if hope allows them to feel a little better, however ill they are, they are likely to live a little longer, and perhaps die more peacefully.



  1. " best of intentions, but unfortunately with the worst of results."

    I think this applies beyond medicine, I think it is a modern problem .