Better Health: Smart Health Commentary Better Health (TM): smart health commentary

Article Comments

“Your Medical Mind” Explores Factors That Influence A Patient’s Medical Decisions

Recently, I had a conversation with Shannon Brownlee (the widely respected science journalist and acting director of the Health Policy Program at the New America Foundation) about whether men should continue to have access to the PSA test for prostate cancer screening, despite the overwhelming evidence that it extends few, if any, lives and harms many more men than it benefits. She felt that if patients could be provided with truly unbiased information and appropriate decision aids, they should still be able to choose to have the test (and have it covered by medical insurance). Believing that one of the most important roles of doctors is to prevent patients from making bad decisions, I disagreed.

After reading Your Medical Mind, the new book by Harvard oncologist and New Yorker columnist Jerome Groopman, I think he would probably side with Brownlee’s point of view. Groopman, whose authoring credits include the 2007 bestseller How Doctors Think, and wife Pamela Hartzband, MD have written a kind of sequel to that book that could have easily been titled How Patients Think. Drawing on interviews with dozens of patients about a wide variety of medical decisions – from starting a cholesterol-lowering drug, to having knee surgery, to accepting or refusing heroic end-of-life interventions – the authors explore many of the factors that influence people’s health-related choices. The result is a compelling narrative that seamlessly blends “rational” factors such as interpreting medical statistics and decision analysis with personal factors such as past experience, emotional states, and personality styles.

Some of the ground in the first few chapters (“Where Am I In the Numbers?” and “Believers and Doubters”) has been well-covered in other recent books, notably, in H. Gilbert Welch’s Overdiagnosed and Know Your Chances. But Groopman and Hartzband go farther in challenging two notions that have strong advocates among current U.S. health reformers: 1) adherence to evidence-based guidelines is a panacea for improving care outcomes; and 2) preparing meticulous “advanced directives” will simplify and improve end-of-life decisions. The authors also observe that shared decision-making means just that: a shared decision by a doctor and patient on a level at which a patient feels comfortable, not the one-sided ritual of “obtaining consent” or complete abdication of responsibility by the doctor.

“If medicine were an exact science, like mathematics,” Groopman and Hartzman conclude, “there would be one answer for each problem. Your preferences about treatment would be irrelevant to what is ‘right.’ But medicine is an uncertain science. … The path to maintaining or regaining health is not the same for everyone.” Even to a physician who spent several years of my career working on prevention guidelines and remains an unabashed supporter of guideline-driven care, these words ring absolutely true.

In practice, of course, patients make a lot of seemingly irrational decisions. A healthy 40 year-old male patient may, if he wants, request annual PSA tests and decline the HPV and influenza vaccines for his children. These are poor choices which some doctors would even take personally. As his doctor, and a believer in the mantra of shared decision-making, I would do my best to make sure that he understood the relevant statistics, and elicit any past experiences or personal beliefs that prevented him from considering my recommendations. But if he persisted, suggest Groopman and Hartzband, I would at some point need to stand aside and recognize the limits of persuasion and my comprehension of his motivations. It’s a very hard thing to do. Which brings me to a last point: although Your Medical Mind was written for patients, doctors will find it worth reading, too – if only for the opportunity to get inside the heads of patients and find out what they were really thinking.

*This blog post was originally published at Common Sense Family Doctor*


You may also like these posts

Read comments »


Comments are closed.

Return to article »

Latest Interviews

IDEA Labs: Medical Students Take The Lead In Healthcare Innovation

It’s no secret that doctors are disappointed with the way that the U.S. healthcare system is evolving. Most feel helpless about improving their work conditions or solving technical problems in patient care. Fortunately one young medical student was undeterred by the mountain of disappointment carried by his senior clinician mentors…

Read more »

How To Be A Successful Patient: Young Doctors Offer Some Advice

I am proud to be a part of the American Resident Project an initiative that promotes the writing of medical students residents and new physicians as they explore ideas for transforming American health care delivery. I recently had the opportunity to interview three of the writing fellows about how to…

Read more »

See all interviews »

Latest Cartoon

See all cartoons »

Latest Book Reviews

Book Review: Is Empathy Learned By Faking It Till It’s Real?

I m often asked to do book reviews on my blog and I rarely agree to them. This is because it takes me a long time to read a book and then if I don t enjoy it I figure the author would rather me remain silent than publish my…

Read more »

The Spirit Of The Place: Samuel Shem’s New Book May Depress You

When I was in medical school I read Samuel Shem s House Of God as a right of passage. At the time I found it to be a cynical yet eerily accurate portrayal of the underbelly of academic medicine. I gained comfort from its gallows humor and it made me…

Read more »

Eat To Save Your Life: Another Half-True Diet Book

I am hesitant to review diet books because they are so often a tangled mess of fact and fiction. Teasing out their truth from falsehood is about as exhausting as delousing a long-haired elementary school student. However after being approached by the authors’ PR agency with the promise of a…

Read more »

See all book reviews »