Dealing with difficult doctors VI: the judge

October 6, 2008  |  General

Here is another post taken from my newest book, How to Talk to Your Child’s Doctor. This one concerns what I call the judge.

All physicians naturally make judgments regarding the parents they are interviewing. For example, we assess how accurate and plausible their history is. We try to decide if they are telling us the whole story and, if not, if they are inadvertently or deliberately holding something back from us for whatever reason. All experienced physicians do this. What we rarely do, however, is judge the parents’ worth as people, as individuals apart from their children. There are exceptions to this, like all blanket statements in medicine, but we cannot do a good job abiding by the important ethical principle of equal care for all children if we categorize parents as good or bad. After all, children do not choose their parents.

The inappropriately judging physician runs the risk of allowing his opinion of a child’s parents to get in the way of his taking proper care of the child. His judgments might be condemning or laudatory; either type can cause problems because they lead to assumptions that may not be correct. Physicians should be especially vigilant about the dangers of inappropriate judging when there are social differences between them and parents, such as ethnicity or language. All humans have the capacity to be good parents. I have seen convicted felons who are better parents in comparison to people who are social pillars of their communities.

Interestingly, judging physicians sometimes err by overvaluing the position of the parents. One sees this occasionally when one or both parents are medical professionals. There is a real risk for miscommunication if the evaluating doctor assumes that parents’ medical or nursing knowledge means they are perfect observers and historians. When their children are ill, parents who are doctors or nurses are parents first and need to be treated that way.

Unfortunately, there is not much advice I can offer if you believe that a physician’s judgment of you as a person is interfering with his assessment and management of your child’s medical problems. As with other potential communication problems between parents and doctors, confrontation is rarely a good strategy, since a physician guilty of this communication problem is unlikely to admit it or even recognize it. My best advice is, armed with what you have learned in the previous chapters, to do the best you can to ensure that your child’s evaluation—the history, physical examination, and laboratory tests—is as thorough as it needs to be, and that the doctor, whatever you think of him, explains things completely.


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