Monday, December 05, 2005

What Are Doctors For?

We spent the Thanksgiving weekend with friends in Ottawa, Ontario where, on the Sunday, we attended St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church.

After the service, I glanced at a rack of brochures and spotted one titled “In and Out of the Hospital.” It was published by The Council on Aging of Ottawa. Its stated purpose was “to prepare you for a stay in hospital and your return home.” The introductory paragraph stated that “You….have the right to ask questions, to get answers, and to decide what is the best action to take for your health and well being.”

Suggested questions included: Why do I need [the recommended treatment]? How much better will it make me? What are the possible complications? What are the possible side effects of the medications? What will happen if I don’t do it? Or if I wait? What alternative treatments are there?

According to my indoctrination into health care, the role of physicians was one of making diagnostic and therapeutic judgments that had life and death consequences for patients.

But if science and technology have made diagnosis more scientific and less dependent on judgment, and if in therapeutic matters patients are going to “decide what is the best action to take for [their] health and well being,” what are doctors for?

That question may sound ridiculous, but I submit that it deserves attention and may have an important bearing on the redesign of our health care system.

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