You and the Skeptical Patient: Who’s the Doctor Here?

Gregory A. Hood, MD, remembers a patient of his who was perpetually dubious about COVID-19 — and then couldn’t be saved.

“I spoke to him on many occasions about the dangers of COVID, but he just didn’t believe me,” said Hood, an internist in Lexington, Kentucky. “He just didn’t give me enough time to help him. He waited to let me know he was ill with COVID and took days to pick up the medicine. Unfortunately, he then passed away.”

The Rise of the Skeptical Patient

It can be extremely frustrating for doctors when patients question or disbelieve their physician’s medical advice and explanations. And many physicians resent the amount of time they spend trying to explain or make their case, especially during a busy day. But patients’ skepticism about the validity of some treatments seems to be increasing.

“Patients are now more likely to have their own medical explanation for their complaint than they used to, and that can be bad for their health,” Hood said.

Hood sees medical cynicism as part of Americans’ growing distrust of experts, leveraged by easy access to the internet. “When people Google, they tend to look for support of their opinions, rather than arrive at a fully educated decision,” Hood said.

Only about half of patients believe their physicians “provide fair and accurate treatment information all or most of the time,” according to a 2019 survey by the Pew Research Center.

Patients’ distrust has become more obvious during the COVID-19 pandemic, said John Schumann, MD, an internist with Oak Street Health, a practice with more than 500 physicians and other providers in 20 states, treating almost exclusively Medicare patients.

“The skeptics became more entrenched during the pandemic,” said Schumann, who is based in Tulsa, Oklahoma. “They may think the COVID vaccines were approved too quickly, or believe the pandemic itself is a hoax.”

“There’s a lot of anti-science rhetoric now,” Schumann added. “I’d say about half of my patients are comfortable with science-based decisions and the other half are not.”

What Are Patients Mistrustful About?

Patients’ suspicions of certain therapies began long before the pandemic. In dermatology, for example, some patients refuse to take topical steroids, said Steven R. Feldman, MD, a dermatologist in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

“Their distrust is usually based on anecdotal stories they read about,” he noted. “Patients in other specialties are dead set against vaccinations.”

In addition to refusing treatments and inoculations, some patients ask for questionable regimens mentioned in the news. “Some patients have demanded hydroxychloroquine or Noromectin, drugs that are unproven in the treatment of COVID,” Schumann said. “We refuse to prescribe them.”

Hood said patients’ reluctance to follow medical advice can often be based on cost. “I have a patient who was more willing to save $20 than to save his life,” he said. “But when the progression of his test results fit my predictions, he became more willing to take treatments. I had to wait for the opportune moment to convince him.”

Many naysayer patients keep their views to themselves, and physicians may be unaware that the patients are stonewalling. A 2006 study estimated that about 10%-16% of primary care patients actively resist medical authority.

Schumann cited patients who don’t want to hear an upsetting diagnosis. Some patients might refuse to take a biopsy to see if they have cancer because they don’t want to know,” he said. “In many cases, they simply won’t get the biopsy and won’t tell the doctor that they didn’t.”

Sometimes Skeptics’ Arguments Have Merit

Some patients’ concerns can be valid, such as when they refuse to go on statins, said Zain Hakeem, DO, a physician in Austin, Texas.

“In some cases, I feel that statins are not necessary,” he said. “The science on statins for primary prevention is not strong, although they should be used for exceedingly high-risk patients.”

Certain patients, especially those with chronic conditions, do a great deal of research, using legitimate sources on the Web, and their research is well supported.

However, these patients can be overconfident in their conclusions. Several studies have shown that with just a little experience, people can replace beginners’ caution with a false sense of competence.

For example, “Patients may not weigh the risks correctly,” Hakeem said. “They can be more concerned about the risk of having their colon perforated during a colonoscopy, while the risk of cancer if they don’t have a colonoscopy is much higher.”

Some highly successful people may be more likely to trust their own medical instincts. When Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2003, he put off surgery for 9 months while he tried to cure his disease with a vegan diet, acupuncture, herbs, bowel cleansings, and other remedies he read about. He died in 2011. Some experts believe that delay hastened his death.

Of course, not all physicians’ diagnoses or treatments are correct. One study indicated doctors’ diagnostic error rate could be as high as 15%. And just as patients can be overconfident in their conclusions, so can doctors. Another study found that physicians’ stated confidence in their diagnosis was only slightly affected by the inaccuracy of that diagnosis or the difficulty of the case.

Best Ways to Deal With Cynical Patients

Patients’ skepticism can frustrate doctors, reduce the efficiency of care delivery, and interfere with recovery. What can doctors do to deal with these problems?

1. Build the patient’s trust in you. “Getting patients to adhere to your advice involves making sure they feel they have a caring doctor whom they trust,” Feldman said.

“I want to show patients that I am entirely focused on them,” he added. “For example, I may rush to the door of the exam room from my last appointment, but I open the door very slowly and deliberately, because I want the patient to see that I won’t hurry with them.”

2. Spend time with the patient. Familiarity builds trust. Schumann said doctors at Oak Street Health see their patients an average of six to eight times a year, an unusually high number. “The more patients see their physicians, the more likely they are to trust them,” he said.

3. Keep up to date. “I make sure I’m up to date with the literature, and I try to present a truthful message,” Hood said. “For instance, my research showed that inflammation played a strong role in developing complications from COVID, so I wrote a detailed treatment protocol aimed at the inflammation and the immune response, which has been very effective.”

4. Confront patients tactfully. Patients who do research on the Web don’t want to be scolded, Feldman said. In fact, he praises them, even if he doesn’t agree with their findings. “I might say, ‘What a relief to finally find patients who’ve taken the time to educate themselves before coming here,'” he said.

Feldman is careful not to dispute patients’ conclusions. “Debating the issues is not an effective approach to get patients to trust you,” he said. “The last thing you want to tell a patient is ‘Listen to me! I’m an expert.’ People just dig in.”

However, it does help to give patients feedback. “I’m a big fan of patients arguing with me,” Hakeem said. “It means you can straighten out misunderstandings and improve decision-making.”

5. Explain your reasoning. “You need to communicate clearly and show them your thinking,” Hood said. “For instance, I’ll explain why a patient has a strong risk for heart attack.”

6. Acknowledge uncertainties . “The doctor may present the science as far more certain than it is,” Hakeem said. “If you don’t acknowledge the uncertainties, you could break the patient’s trust in you.”

7. Don’t use a lot of numbers. “Data is not a good tool to convince patients,” Feldman said. “The human brain isn’t designed to work that way.”

If you want to use numbers to show clinical risk, Hakeem advises using natural frequencies, such as 10 out of 10,000, which is less confusing to the patient than the equivalent percentage of 0.1%.

It can be helpful to refer to familiar concepts. One way to understand a risk is to compare it with risks in daily life, such as the dangers of driving or falling in the shower, Hakeem added.

Feldman often refers to another person’s experience when presenting his medical advice. He explained, “I might say to the patient, ‘You remind me of another patient I had. They were sitting in the same chair you’re sitting in. They did really well on this drug, and I think it’s probably the best choice for you, too.'”

8. Adopt shared decision-making. This approach involves empowering the patient to become an equal partner in medical decisions. The patient is given information through portals and is encouraged to do research. Critics, however, say that most patients don’t want this degree of empowerment and would rather depend on the doctor’s advice.


It’s often impossible to get through to a skeptical patient, which can be disheartening for doctors. “Physicians want to do what is best for the patient, so when the patient doesn’t listen, they may take it personally,” Hood said. “But you always have to remember, the patient is the one with disease, and it’s up to the patient to open the door.”

Still, some skeptical patients ultimately change their minds. Schumann said patients who initially declined the COVID vaccine eventually decided to get it. “It often took them more than a year,” he said, “but it’s never too late.”

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