Medical Knowledge: Is Your Doctor a Reliable Source?

Consider this:  The medical knowledge your doctor relies on to treat you is incomplete, and at times, inaccurate. The smart medical consumer will spend the time doing their own medical research, so they can accurately judge the quality of the care they receive from their physician.

So why don’t doctors have accurate information? To begin, as would be expected, doctors rely on the information they learned in medical school to treat patients. However, after years in practice, that information is often outdated. And what if the information they were taught in school was flawed?  The fact is that most physicians don’t rely on the latest, or most accurate information when treating patients on a daily basis.

Biased Research

Many doctors try to keep up their medical knowledge by reading the current research. But this source of information can be unreliable as well.  Dr. John Ioannidis, an expert on the medical bias, has written extensively about the flaws found in medical research.  He has estimated that as much as 90 percent of the medical research doctors rely on to treat patients is flawed. 

In an essay published in PLoS Medicine, he writes:

“There is increasing concern that most current published research findings are false…Simulations show that for most study designs and settings, it is more likely for a research claim to be false than true. Moreover, for many current scientific fields, claimed research findings may often be simply accurate measures of the prevailing bias.”

Spinning the Data

But surely doctors can read the studies done and make conclusions?  Not necessarily. Many doctors don’t have enough free time to read every study on every topic. Instead, they rely on “abstracts”.

An abstract is a summary paragraph included with each medical study published. It’s supposed to give the reader a quick overview of the study results. The problem is that these abstracts may or may not reflect the actual results of the study.  In many cases, especially when expensive drugs are involved, the study abstract may give a summary that is the opposite of the actual results.

In addition, a drug company may not even publish a study that provides negative information about their product.

Compromised Medical Journals

As a trusted alternative to reading every study themselves, many doctors rely on and completely trust the medical journals which publish peer-written articles discussing the studies.

Unfortunately, in 2009 the New York Times reported that the articles in many of the top medical journals are often written by “ghostwriters” who work for pharmaceutical companies or other businesses with vested interests in spinning the data.  According to the study cited by the Times, “responding authors reported a 10.9 percent rate of ghostwriting in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, the highest rate among the journals.”

Physician Arrogance

In addition to flawed information sources, physician arrogance and boredom can affect the care you receive. For example, when a patient’s complaint is a “routine” problem, such as heartburn, the doctor has no reason to look at the causes closely.  Since they deal with this ailment frequently, the doctor develops an attitude that the cause and cure of a “simple” complaint like heartburn is a known medical fact.  They already have a written handout to give to the patient, and so they fall back on that course of action. There’s no motivation to find out if new research has been done in this area, and so any new information which might help the patient is lost. People with chronic heartburn can attest to the fact that the routine treatment they are given does little to help.

What You Can Do to Protect Yourself

At the end of the day, all of these influences point to the fact that the advice, care and medical knowledge you get from your physician might not be reflective of the latest research or the best for your health.

Since your health and physical well-being are so critical to a happy life, obtaining the proper medical knowledge is a critical component of your personal health care plan.

Here’s how to get the medical knowledge you need to get the best health care possible:

  • Do your own research on whatever health issue you are experiencing.  Go to Pubmed and look for the most current research on that particular topic.  New information is constantly being generated by research scientists, and it might be years before a study is written up in a medical journal, and even longer before your doctor sees that article.
  • Find out who in the medical world is the “expert” on your issue, and contact them. One way to do this is to look at who is publishing articles on your particular issue.  Pubmed would have this information.
  • Get a copy of the Physicians’ Desk Reference manual, or go to their website to find out the facts about drugs your doctor wants to prescribe.  You can also visit the FDA’s Medwatch to view or register complaints about medical devices and drugs.
  • Investigate the relationships between health agencies, physicians and pharmaceutical companies by visiting the ProPublica website.
  • Read books on your particular health issue, and search for other people discussing your issue on the internet.  These people may have already done research from which you can benefit.  There may even be forums on your health issue on which you can ask questions and find more information.
  • If your doctor disparages your knowledge or ignores your questions and concerns, find another doctor who will work with you to provide the care you want.

The bottom line is that it’s up to you to make sure that you have the medical knowledge you need to judge the quality of the care you receive.  When you speak to your doctor, you should know as much as he or she knows about your ailment, so that you can judge the quality of the information and care being given.  Only then will you know that you are receiving the best care possible.

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