What to do "When Doctors Don't Listen"

Jul 7, 2013

When was the last time you got every question answered when you visited the doctor? Have you ever felt rushed out of the room after waiting for your doctor for a long time? It can even happen during an appointment with the most well-intentioned physician. This week on “Take Care,” we talk to Dr. Lena Wen, co-author of the book When Doctors Don’t Listen: How To Avoid Misdiagnoses and Unnecessary Tests, about how to get the most out of your next doctor’s visit.

Click 'Read More' to hear our interview with Dr. Lena Wen.

Dr. Wen was inspired to write her book when her mother was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer after being misdiagnosed for nearly a year. It made her realize how disconnected patients sometimes feel from their doctors.

“When you’re the patient, you already don’t feel well. Even if you just have a cold, you’re feeling rundown and tired and not feeling that’s the time to advocate for yourself,” Dr. Wen said. She emphasizes that it is important to practice telling your story in a concise manner before your appointment.

Many patients think that if a doctor is asking you a lot of questions or is administering tests, that it is a good thing. Dr. Wen calls this “cookbook medicine,” when the doctor is going down the typical diagnostic path based on your symptoms. Dr. Wen fears that this may not be the best practice, saying that just because you have a particular symptom doesn’t mean you should be treated just like everyone else with that symptom. She says everyone deserves to be treated as an individual, and patients should be wary when their doctor starts following the “cookbook recipe” of how to treat them.

In her book, Dr. Wen describes “Jerry,” a 40-something man who went to his doctor with chest pain. Jerry neglected to tell his doctor that he spent the previous day helping his brother move and lifting heavy boxes. He was given multiple tests and told to stay overnight in the emergency room for observation. The next morning, his doctor said that Jerry did not have a heart attack, but rather just chest pain.

Jerry’s story highlights one of Dr. Wen’s eight pillars to better diagnosis --which is patients need to tell their whole story. If Jerry had told his doctor he was lifting heavy boxes all day, he probably may not have been given those unnecessary tests – or at least given the choice of whether he wanted to have them. Dr. Wen advises to practice telling your story quickly, as most doctors cut patients off after less than 10 seconds.

Dr. Wen says that everyone has a different risk threshold – some patients and doctors may opt for medical tests even when there’s only a slight chance they are needed, while others are more willing to take the risk of skipping those tests. She believes that everyone should be able to make personal decisions on what treatment they receive.

Medical students need to learn not just about the science of medicine, but the art of medicine, according to Dr. Wen. She says that it is imperative that future doctors are trained how to listen, empathize and really be with a patient.

“We all went to medical school because we want to be partners with our patients. Nobody went to medical school or nursing school or a health professional school of any kind so that we could practice cookbook medicine. We all went into this field because we really want to help people,” she said.