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Questions you shouldn't be afraid to ask your doctor

One of my classes this year happens to discuss forms of knowledge acquisition, and frequently we tangent over to the questions of authority and certainty. It was raised in a class discussing science’s ability to ‘predict’ things, that people with mental health difficulties feel the consequences of these scientific predictions every time they try a new medicine (this was later widened to include all illnesses that have uncertain treatment paths).

In other words, every time you talk to your doctor, he or she is making a prediction about what will work as a treatment, and sometimes they have about as good an idea of what will happen as a weatherman.

No disrespect intended to weather people. They actually have a decent success ratio, and use incredibly complicated algorithms far beyond what I could ever understand, much less use for predicting the weather.

The same goes for your doctor. They aren’t gambling with your health. They are on your side!


However, they are no better able to predict the weather of your body than is the weatherman. They don’t pretend to be able to do so! What this ultimately means is that you don’t need to bow down to their authority.

I wouldn’t be saying any of this if it weren’t for many people I’ve met who think that doctors – and scientists in general – have an ability to know the truth. They are in the business of creating, or at least learning, facts. With your doctor specifically, they then transmit the best of their factual knowledge to their treatment of you. This gives them an air of authority that people think needs to be respected.

I think you should respect your doctor for being a doctor, not for his or her ability to predict, diagnose or otherwise tell the truth. They’ve worked incredibly hard, and still do so, to learn as much as possible about ailments so that they can help you. But they are not the ultimate authority. They are not incontrovertible. And neither is science.

There are a lot of authority icons related to your doctor and science that call on you, socially, to respect them. The white lab coat. You sit while they stand. You wait on their ability to see you, in a room by yourself, surrounded by fairly unfamiliar instruments. The environment is sterile. They can’t shake your hand. They may have to wear a mask. All of these are perfectly logical procedures, but each one adds more to the aura of authority surrounding their visage.

I happen to love that my psychiatrist rarely even wears ‘business’ clothes, let alone a white lab coat. He sits opposite me, with no desk in between. He avoids taking too many notes until the end. His office has sunshine. He clearly works very hard to make sure that we have a respectful relationship that encourages my participation, my decisions and my input and questions into what we choose to do.

My family doctor follows the more traditional approach. He’s also so booked to the nines that I don’t blame him one bit (at least not when I think about it for two seconds and tell myself not to be irritable). Certainly in Canada we have a doctor shortage, so I’m lucky to have a family doctor. A more casual one would only be superfluous cherries on top.

So what am I rambling about? I’m trying to say that despite whatever authority you mentally invest in your doctor or local scientists, their knowledge is only as good as their data, and you bring most of that data to the table. By asking questions and pointing out problems, you make their job easier, eventually.

Story I heard today: Someone is very stressed about school, to the point of serious difficulty. Their doctor diagnoses them with depression and prescribes an anti-depressant. The side effects are worse than the symptoms, gaining weight, hypersomnia, apathy, etc. What does this patient do? Nothing. She stays the course because her doctor said so.

Yes, there are adjustment periods to drugs, but this is beyond that. If you are suffering, the least you should do is tell your doctor about it. Discuss. Question.