Sunday, November 10, 2019

Why Doctors Won't Give Medical Advice

Doctors dispense medical advice.  That’s what we do.  Folks come to our office with various medical issues.  We talk to them.  We poke around some of their body parts.  Then, we exercise our medical judgement.  We might order a CAT scan.  We might prescribe stuff.  We might simply reassure them and send them on their way. This is a typical ‘day in the life’ of a health care provider, formerly known as a doctor. 

From time to time, folks solicit my advice under different circumstances.  Despite my efforts to keep my medical specialty stealth, sometimes the secret seeps out when I am in a social setting.

“Oh, you’re a gastro guy?  Would you mind if I asked you quick question about my husband?  He has a gas problem…”

I get questions like this all the time, and I do my best to respond in way that sounds authoritative, yet dispenses no legitimate medical advice.  Here are some examples of how I might respond to the above inquiry on spousal flatulence.
  • “Yeah, if I had a dollar for every time someone asked me about their gas…”
  • “Hmmm.  Sounds interesting.  Do you have any corks at home?”
  • “Call the gas company.  When we had a gas leak in our house, they simply fixed the pipe with a blowtorch.  Maybe your husband has the same problem.”
  • “I would call your husband’s doctor.  I suggest around midnight when you know he’ll be available.  Much better than calling during office hours and dealing with that office rat race.”
  • “Are you sure it’s gas?  Have you heard about the light-a-match gas test?”
  • “Your say your husband has gas?   You should hear what he told me about you!”
Cows pass methane orally and rectally

The point is that physicians generally defer from giving medical advice to folks who are not our patients.  Even a seemingly innocent query can have serious ramifications.  I would not want to give casual advice to non-patients who have questions about last month’s chest pain or if it’s safe to travel to South America before a cardiac stress test next month. 

This is not just true for doctors.  Try asking a financial planner you meet at a party if you should unload your stocks based on the market’s behavior that day.  Ask an attorney who does not represent you if he thinks you are better off settling your case or proceeding to trial. 

Professionals cannot be flip about rendering advice, particularly to strangers.  Consider this hypothetical.  I’m out to dinner and my friend’s wife, who is not my patient, asks if she should double up on her Nexium because she’s still getting heartburn.  I say yes.  But what she thinks is heartburn is really angina.  My casual remark may make me an accomplice to a catastrophe. 

So, don’t ask me about your husband’s flatulence if he’s not my patient.  Bring him and his gas to my office and we will do our best to deflate the situation.

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