5 Reasons Not to Rely on Doctors

Graphic credit: news.weill.cornell.edu

Just to be clear, this post is not about bashing doctors! We see many amazing, caring doctors. This post is about an over-reliance on what doctors in our healthcare system can do and taking charge of our own health. Maybe you already know different, but I grew up thinking that the doctor’s word was the final word. Unsure about anything? Go see a doctor. Nowadays, I still see a doctor, but I go online, research some more, and I take the doctor’s opinion into consideration as I decide what to do. Here’s why:

#1 They’re not always up to date on the latest research

Doctors are busy and many are in a practice where they are required to get through a certain number of patients each day. Maybe they don’t have time to keep up on the latest research on everything or have the time to communicate it to you.

For example, Benadryl, due to its lower safety profile, has no longer been the drug of choice for allergic diseases for at least a few years now. We’ve been seeing a variety of allergists and pediatricians regularly during that time, and none of them had informed us of this. We recently saw a new allergist, and were finally told of the preference to avoid Benadryl.

#2 They’re likely to overtreat

Doctors estimate that ~20% of medical care is unnecessary.  This overtreatment happens for a number of reasons. Doctors fear malpractice lawsuits for not doing enough. This causes what is known as defensive practices, such as ordering unwarranted labs and tests. They also can have financial incentives for getting more procedures done and finally, it’s the patients themselves who insist on getting tests and scans, etc. that they don’t really need.

I have a file folder full of tests/scans ordered for my elderly parents over the last two decades. They decided to skip the majority of them and they’re doing OK. All this just means you have to pay extra thought to whether the test or procedure that the doctor just ordered is really appropriate for you.

Update as of 6/22/20: Due to COVID-19, many people stopped going to the doctor as much either because appointments/surgeries had to be delayed, or they feared catching the virus in medical settings. Yet, according to wrote that the vast majority of people fared much better without this healthcare than doctors expected. He posited that Americans actually don’t need the amount of healthcare that is typically provided. 

#3 They’re specialists and only looking at part of your problem

We really do need doctors who understand a lot about one particular area – there can be so much to know. The problem is that they can miss a whole lot of other stuff because our body works as a whole! Furthermore, because of the way medical records are set up, primary physician sometimes don’t get all of your medical information from specialists and vice versa.

If you don’t communicate the information yourself or don’t fully know it either, you’re out of luck. Unfortunately, all this means more work for you in uncovering what else might be going on in your body and connecting any dots. Nobody else is really going to look at the big picture or track it, except for you.

#4 The research they rely on is not always reliable

Doctors generally provide evidence-based treatment. That is the profession and how they’re taught. However, they can only rely on the research available to make recommendations for you. But the problem is that alot of that research is flawed too. A 2014 Atlantic article wrote that Dr. John Ioannadis, one of the world’s leading experts on medical research, estimates that 90% of the medical research that doctors rely on is flawed.

I was surprised by this, but then I will readily admit that I used to be one of those people who would just skim to the “Conclusions” part of any research article. I decided to pay attention to the methods and the details for how the studies were conducted and I realized that some of the conclusions were really not so convincing.

That sucks, doesn’t it? Again, more work and thinking on our part. 

#5 They misdiagnose and can have widely different opinions

I’m sure you’ve often heard of getting a second opinion. In fact a third or a fourth opinion could be good, too. It’s natural that doctors will have different opinions about what could be wrong with you and prescribe different treatments. So what are you supposed to do? Which doctor’s opinion should you go with?

Recently, I had a cough that turned into some nasty cough and congestion. The family doctor told me I had a virus and if I didn’t get better, it must be bacterial and she would prescribe me antibiotics empirically. The allergist did a nose swab and said no bacteria. He gave me a skin rash test and  told me that I had really bad allergies, prescribed me steroids, and recommended that I start on a program of allergy shots. In the end, I did nothing (more out of uncertainty than anything), but thankfully recovered two weeks later. But I could have had an unnecessary course of antibiotics or steroids.

Final thoughts

Basically, the state of the US healthcare system, how it works, and how it impacts the medical care we receive really forces us to take charge of our own health and the decisions we make regarding our own care. Doctors provide recommendations, but now more than ever, it’s necessary and also possible (with a little Internet research) for us to ask more questions and evaluate the options better on our own.

Resources

Doctors overtreating due to habits

Doctors generally overtreating 

Doctors overtreating for fear of malpractice lawsuits  

Doctors overtreating due to patient pressure

Navigating the medical healthcare system:

Medical studies are not reliable (but it’s also the research that doctors rely on):

Doctors over or misdiagnosing for their own profit or simply because doctors have widely different opinions:

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