If people don’t listen to their doctors, who do they listen to?
A WSJ Online/Harris Interactive Health-Care Poll found that a majority of U.S. adults believe that medical providers over-treat or under-treat their medical conditions. While sometimes this leads to getting a second opinion, other times it leads to not filling a prescription or getting a diagnostic test. The Kaiser Women’s Health Survey found that 22% of women “expressed concerns about the quality of care they got from their physicians or health care providers, compared to 17% of men. This issue was a particular problem for women in fair or poor health (40%).” The nurse practitioner in my doctor’s office once told me that more people take the advice of a stranger in the supermarket check-out line than her advice. There are many efforts to increase the number of people with health insurance, but the availability of affordable professional expertise does not necessarily mean that advice is taken.
I gave a keynote address on Online Communities: Innovative Notions of Expertise and Peer Learning, and started my talk by asking if I should use Weight Watchers or Atkins to lose 10 pounds. Saul Carliner, who was prepared to be a plant in the audience if no one else answered immediately, gave a compelling argument for the long term benefits of Weight Watchers. I then asked who agreed with him, and almost everyone did. One of the few people who hadn’t raised her hand said that diet and exercise need to be tightly coupled, but we agreed that she was only enhancing Saul’s response. I pointed out that we had (1) an opinion from one (somewhat anonymous) person and (2) the wisdom of crowds agreeing with him. I then asked how Saul’s advice would be looked at if (3) we knew that he had successfully lost and kept off weight or (4) we knew that he had a professional experience as a nutritionist. I went on to give a corresponding example on Amazon.com of how book reviews can fit into these categories. However, making a book selection has little cost, while health choices can have enormous consequences.
In What Doctors Don’t Know (Almost Everything), Kevin Paterson writes, “From the first day in the cadaver room and on, every medical student is drilled with this truism: ‘Medicine is both an art and a science.'” He goes on to write that “intuition is certainly an indispensable part of medicine. The body is so complex, and the ways it might go wrong so varied, that in the middle of the night, standing next to some fresh catastrophe, a doctor sometimes needs to generalize and to reduce very complicated problems to first principles. It is simply not possible to be rigorously intellectual and consult the available medical data about every single thing, all the time.”
Even if doctors don’t know everything, they know a lot. But if people don’t listen to their doctors, who do they listen to and are they receiving sound advice?