By Michael Warren
If you think some doctors find it difficult to admit there’s something they don’t know, you’re probably right. Some physicians use jargon to hide their inability to answer your questions or figure out what’s causing your ailment.
For physicians, it’s time to accept one basic, undeniable fact: We’re only human, and it’s virtually impossible for any single individual to “know it all.”
The body of knowledge in medicine is now so enormous that physicians and other professionals have been forced to focus on specific areas of their profession.
And specialization is getting narrower and narrower. Now, there are orthopedic surgeons who only operate on knees, hands or shoulders. There are urologists who treat only kidney stones, cancer or infections.
There are advantages for the patient. The chance of a physician who devotes his or her entire professional energy toward treating kidney stones and not understanding any problem that arises with one is minimal. However, don’t ask that same specialist about your orthopedic concerns.
Even in a doctor’s own area of expertise, there could be a time when he or she simply does not know the answer. Some physicians think that to admit this is a sign of weakness but, realistically, if a doctor does not know the answer, you should hear, “I don’t know but I’ll find out,” or, “I know another physician who should be able to help you,” or “I’m mystified; let’s get input from another source.”
Your doctor could also need to run tests, take X-rays, go to the medical library and call fellow physicians for advice — whatever it takes to get an answer.
You should never be dismissed with a litany of medical terminology that leaves your head spinning and your questions unanswered. If you suspect that your doctor is not being completely honest with you, seek another opinion. You have a right to an accurate evaluation of your medical condition, even if the answer to your questions is, “I don’t know but I’ll find out.”
Once the physician has an answer, it should be explained in plain English. If you don’t understand, ask again. And never leave a doctor’s office until you understand your medical problem completely.
Your primary-care physician can legitimately say, “I don’t know” and refer you to a specialist. The specialist can say, “I don’t know” and either find the answer or refer you to another specialist.
“I don’t know” should be one of the most important phrases in any physician’s vocabulary and should be used without shame or embarrassment. The patient should be able to expect and be thankful for such honesty.
Dr. Michael M. Warren is Ashbel Smith Professor of Surgery in the division of urology at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston.