It’s a tale as old as time: you go in for an annual checkup with your family physician and they give you some guidance regarding a specific health concern. You then make an appointment with a specialist a few weeks later, only to find out that they’re providing contradictory advice.
So how do you know which route is right for you?
“M.D.s, N.D.s and other providers are human beings with their own biases and limitations,” says Dr. Chris Meletis, N.D. and Notch Medical Advisor. “As healthcare providers we’re supposed to check our biases at the door, but that doesn’t necessarily mean every professional will be able to meet your needs.”
In order to make the most informed decision regarding your health, it’s important to take a few different factors into consideration.
What types of doctors are there?
In general, most people see a wide variety of healthcare practitioners in their lifetime. That said, almost everyone has a primary physician that they rely on for annual checkups and general medical concerns. Family practitioners, primary care doctors and internists all fall in this category.
Your primary care doctor will often recommend specialists for more complex health concerns, whether it be a dermatologist for persistent acne or a gastroenterologist for a dysfunctional gut. In many cases, patients may also seek out specialists on their own.
“There are few advisors in your life that are more important to trust and respect than your personal healthcare providers,” Meletis says. “You’re not looking for a friend when selecting a provider, but if you’re not confident enough to refer your friend to them, they’re probably not meeting your needs.”
One of the most important things to note is that the terms “doctor” and “physician” are not interchangeable. A physician is a medical or naturopathic doctor with graduate-level training that allows them to diagnose, prescribe and treat most medical concerns. While no doctor is “greater” than another, it’s important to find someone who you can trust and has expertise surrounding your needs.
What do I need to know as a patient?
One of the most important steps you can take as a patient is to be familiar with the Patient’s Bill of Rights, he says.
“We are all patients regardless of our expertise,” he says. “My approach as a patient is always to request the needed diagnostic tests and treatments so that I can provide informed consent.”
In summary, informed consent is the process in which healthcare providers educate their patients about the risks, benefits and alternatives surrounding a specific procedure, test or treatment. With this education as a background, the patient should be competent enough to make a voluntary decision about their health and treatment options.
The concept of informed consent is based on four guiding principles:
- The patient is capable of making a decision regarding the treatment, testing or procedure.
- The medical provider has disclosed all information on the treatment, testing or procedure, including specifics surrounding both the risks and benefits.
- The patient can comprehend the information provided.
- The patient has voluntarily granted consent.
Meletis says it’s important to only make decisions about your health after listening to all of the experts on your team, as well as seeking the counsel of trustworthy friends and family.
“As a patient, it’s important to listen to all sides of the discussion so you can make the most informed decision possible,” he says.
How can I conduct my own research?
While medical professionals will generally be the most reliable sources, there are occasions where it may be necessary to conduct your own, independent research.
“It’s fine for a healthcare provider to be passionate about their viewpoint, but at the same time they shouldn’t be forcing their opinions on the patient,” he says.
Popular resources such as Mayo Clinic, WebMD and the Institute for Functional Medicine can be useful for general information, so long as they’re not used in lieu of health tests or other diagnostic tools. Specialized health organizations such as the National Cancer Institute, American Heart Association and American Diabetes Association are all great resources for various health conditions.
Lastly, Meletis notes, it’s completely valid for patients to ask their healthcare providers for scientific reading materials that support their claims. Not only does it help support the practitioner’s viewpoint, but it also helps the patient become more informed, he says.
“Ultimately the patient is the only one responsible for their health,” Meletis says. “While healthcare providers can counsel a patient on what to do, the decision is ultimately up to the patient themselves.”