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Patient Inaction Can Hurt Their Families Too

Dr. Mehmet Oz recently had a piece in Time titled “What I Learned from My Cancer Scare” in which he became the the more humbled Mr. Mehmet Oz.  As noted previously here, Dr. Oz last summer had a colonoscopy at age 50 and much to everyone’s surprise had a precancerous colon polyp.  He was advised to follow-up again for a repeat test in 3 months.

As the Time magazine piece noted, he didn’t return for 9 months despite repeated reminders from his doctor.

From this experience, he essentially stumbled upon what has been challenging American medicine and primary care.  How do we enable patients to do the right thing and get the screening tests done and treatments necessary to avoid premature death and maintain a high quality of life?  As a highly trained professional, Dr. Oz knows the risks and benefits of not doing a preventive screening test.  As a doctor, he knows all of the secret protocols and codespeak we use when calling patients or asking them to see us in the office for important matters.  As a doctor, he also understood the importance of a repeat colonoscopy to ensure no more colon growths.

Yet he didn’t return for 9 months.  Why?

None of us want to deal with our mortality.  Having a screening test means there is a possibility that the test may be abnormal and now we must confront it face to face. Skipping the test means to be blissfully ignorant, even if it is the wrong thing to do.

Also, as Dr. Oz noted, many individuals, particularly those who are otherwise healthy with no family history, feel that many of these tests or interventions don’t apply to them.  Trust me, I know.  As a practicing primary care doctor, do you know how hard it is to convince someone to get screened for colon cancer?  Get vaccinated for pertussis, influenza, or pneumonia?

Dr. Oz, however, did discover what will compel people to do the right thing.  It isn’t about statistics.  It isn’t about knowledge.  (And though he never discussed it, it certainly won’t be consumer driven health care where the theory is that forcing people to have more financial “skin in the game” will enable the right behavior).  It’s about getting to our emotions.

Most important, my colonoscopy wasn’t entirely about me. It was about my wife and our children. It’s about our someday grandchildren. It’s about my childhood friends whose lives remain closely intertwined with mine. It’s about my colleagues and patients at the hospital who teach me as I learn from them. I need to be there for all these people I know and care about. I need to show up in my own life. And you need to show up in yours. Sometimes that requires courage — the courage to undergo a colonoscopy or Pap smear or mammogram or chest X-ray. It’s not easy, but it could save your life. And if it helps even a little, remember that I will be rooting for you.

Reminding our patients that their inaction isn’t just affecting their own livelihood but their network of family and friends.  It’s the reason why certain topics in the media, like the concerns about vaccine safety and autism, gain far more momentum than the scientifically researched and proven life saving interventions and treatments do.

They focus on the emotional aspect of us that make us uniquely human.

Until we, as doctors, employ those same tools, too many Americans will not learn from Dr. Oz’s cancer scare or those from a variety of public figures.  The same problems will simply repeat themselves, just different people become spokespersons (note Katie Couric from a decade earlier regarding colon cancer screening).

Though highly unlikely Dr. Oz will ever read this article, one thing he must do is to highlight the need for a robust primary care workforce and inspire a generation of doctors in training to become the front-line of prevention.  Despite his work as a public figure, the intimate and personal conversations needed about preventive tests and treatments happen one on one at a primary care doctor’s office.  And we certainly need a lot more of us to get the job done.

*This blog post was originally published at Saving Money and Surviving the Healthcare Crisis*

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