Sorry, Doc, that doesn't fit my schedule (Feb-04)

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Patients sometimes skip treatments because they just feel too busy. What should physicians do when their patients ignore their recommendations?

Imagine you are a businessperson who works long hours and you are on your way up to having a successful and lucrative career. You have a major business deal that will consume nearly all of your time over the upcoming month and your boss is relying on you to make sure the deal goes through. This is your chance to really make your mark and show your corporation that you are the kind of person that can handle deals as big as this one. Also suppose you have been smoking on and off for 25 years. You know it's a bad habit that could destroy your lungs, but you just can't quite kick it. Lately, you have been feeling tired, you have been experiencing chest pains when you are really busy at work and when you exercise, and you have had trouble breathing when climbing a flight of stairs. The chest pains are usually relieved by a little rest, but you decide it's time to get this examined by a doctor.

One day after work, you go to see Dr. Coral, who gives you a stress test and determines that you'll need an appointment for an angiogram to better evaluate your coronary arteries. Fortunately, you find one free day right before things get hectic at work, so you schedule the angiogram. Now imagine you have just had the angiogram and you are recovering in a paper gown waiting for Dr. Coral to come back with the results. Dr. Coral enters the room to speak with you and he has a serious look on his face. He says,

"I have both good and bad news for you. The angiogram shows that your 3 main coronary arteries are all severely blocked. The good news is that we caught this before you had a major heart attack."

"The bad news is that I am recommending you have triple bypass surgery as soon as possible. Your heart is working overtime, and it is just a matter of time until it gives out."

The news is shocking, but in addition to your health concerns, you also have the business deal to worry about. This deal is an opportunity to make a name for yourself, and your boss has been very vocal that he was counting on you, trusting that you'd be the one for the job. You find yourself having to weigh your work ambitions against the recommendation from Dr. Coral because if you get surgery, there is no way you'd be able to take on your current work responsibility.
Which of the following decisions would you be most likely to make?
  • I would put aside Dr. Coral's recommendation and instead take responsibility at work for the current deal. I'll wait to have surgery in about a month.
  • I would follow Dr. Coral's recommendation by having surgery immediately, even though this forfeits the current opportunity at work.

A little feedback on what you chose.

It's not that physician's don't care about your other values, but they are primarily concerned about your health, and you might not even have lived long enough to finish the business deal if you didn't have this surgery immediately. This does, however, bring up an important fact: patient's do sometimes reject their physician's medical judgment, and it can be at a great cost to their health.
Why should a patient be part of the decision-making process?
Why shouldn't Dr. Coral just tell you that you need surgery and leave no alternative? Efforts to share decision-making with patients are important because they acknowledge patients' rights to hold views, to make choices, and to take actions based on personal values and beliefs. In addition to being ethically-sound, this shared decision-making process also leads to improved patient health outcomes.
What can a physician do to help the patient choose surgery?
To answer this question, first it needs to be emphasized that in order for a patient to be able to participate in the decision-making process, the patient must be able to soundly make decisions. This sounds abstract and subjective, but it can be broken down into something a little more concrete. Decision-making capacity (DMC) is based on four guidelines:
The patient is able to:
  • understand the information about the condition and the choices available;
  • make a judgment about the information in keeping with his or her personal values and beliefs;
  • understand the potential outcomes or consequences of different choices; and
  • freely communicate his or her wishes
Based on these four elements, it is possible to see what a physician can do to help facilitate a "good" health decision. In order to make sure a patient fully understands the situation, a physician can ask him or her to state their understanding of the problem and of the treatment options. Also, a physician should use clear and unambiguous language with the patient at all times. Although a report might be quite clear from a physician's perspective, a patient might not be as clear about all the details. In the situation you were asked to imagine, Dr. Coral should tell you that you will die without this surgery and that waiting is not a safe option.
Also, there might be other factors keeping a patient from following a physician's recommendation. Again, in your hypothetical situation, your boss was putting a lot of pressure on you not to let him down. Also, this decision would potentially have an effect on your advancement at work. You might not have felt free to elect surgery even if you knew it was the only good decision for your health. By directly acknowledging and addressing a patients' concerns, physicians may facilitate a decision for the surgery.
In conclusion, if a physician feels that a patient is not able to fulfill one or more of the elements of DMC then his or her ability to make that decision should be brought into question and surrogate decision makers should be sought. For more serious decisions, the standards for DMC should be higher than for less important decisions or those with less significant outcome differences among the choices.
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