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A little knowledge is a dangerous thing…

Patient Eye

Jo Carlowe

Thursday, 01 October 2009

paper.jpgA friend recently handed his GP a ream of information downloaded from the Internet.

“I think I’ve got Salmonella,” he declared pointing to the wad of print-outs.

But the GP correctly suspected pancreatitis and my friend was hospitalised for a few days.

A few weeks later he returned with a more minor complaint.

“What do you think I’ve got doctor?” he asked, only to be met with a wry: "Perhaps you should look it up online.”

Now I thought the doctor’s sardonic response was quite amusing, but my friend did not.

“There is no place for facetiousness in the consulting room,” he snorted.

And this set me thinking about doctor-patient communication.

Doctor-patient communication skills are part of the medical curriculum, but as patients there is nothing to guide us in patient-doctor exchanges. The NHS Constitution sets out our responsibilities but it doesn’t tell us whether we’ll get more out of our doctors if we seem au fait with our pathology or whether we are better off admitting that we are pretty ignorant of our own bodies.

So the question is: should we reveal any existing knowledge in the hope that our GP will talk to us as an equal or should we relinquish control?

Certainly, when I visit my GP surgery I never reveal that I’m a health journalist - in part because I assume they may think I know more than I do, but also because I worry that they’ll start giving me their views on the last Doctors’ and Dentists’ Review Body award.

But that said, when I attend my GP practice I do always seem to be clutching a highbrow book or a quality newspaper, and I’m starting to wonder if this is some subconscious attempt to ward off the possibility of the doctor talking down to me. If that is the case it’s working rather too well - my GP uses terms like 'sequelae' and 'cytoplasmic' making me think I’d be better off wielding a prominent copy of the Daily Sport.

Besides, nobody likes a smart-arse. It’s a lesson I learnt not from my doctors’ practice but from a recent exchanged at a garage.

Having read that women are more likely than men to be ripped off when they go to get their car fixed I decided to be pre-emptive.

“I think it’s the contact breaker ignition points,” I explained to the man charged with discovering why my car was having trouble starting.

The man smiled.

“Perhaps,” he said, before quoting an exorbitant fee, and adding: “Only your car doesn’t have any points.”

I expect my friend’s GP would sympathise.

Author's Image

Jo Carlowe

Jo Carlowe is a freelance journalist specialising in health and psychology. She writes for national newspapers including The Times, The Daily Mail, and The Observer and for specialist medical journals, health websites and women's magazines. When not working, she is a self-confessed scrabble nerd, a reluctant runner (one who is still waiting for that elusive runners' high) and a lover of live music, fine food and single malt whisky. She lives in London with her four-year-old son and seven-year-old daughter.
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