The Blame Game

“Congratulations, you’re ready to be a doctor.  You’ve learned how to blame the patient first,” said the attending physician.  He had asked me – a fourth-year medical student – why I thought our patient was not responding to the medication he had been prescribed.  “He may be non-compliant,” I responded.  My intern and resident nodded approvingly.  But George, the attending physician, clearly did not agree.  I was mortified, and I could tell from the awkward silence in the work room that everyone else was as well.  This wasn’t, after all, an indictment of me.  I was merely saying what I had learned, what I had heard these and many other teachers and colleagues say countless times.  George was criticizing our entire system.

We then had a discussion of all the other reasons the patient may not be responding.  It could be the dose was wrong, or there were unacceptable side effects, or we had made an incorrect diagnosis, or the medication was unaffordable.  None of these implied the patient was at fault.  None was nearly as judgmental as that term “non-compliant.”

This was 33 years ago, and as you can tell the lesson was emblazoned in my memory.  We have come a long way as an industry in being more patient-centered – or at least talking that way.  But the healthcare system is still set up largely for the convenience and benefit of the providers.  And we are still too quick to put the onus on patients and families when things don’t work out.  Years later, a medical student was presenting to me when he said the patient’s mother was “a poor historian.”  She was using a phrase that is used very commonly by healthcare providers when a patient’s description of symptoms is difficult to follow.  I paused and pointed out that a historian is one who writes history.  He or she uses a variety of primary sources – documents, artifacts, verbal accounts – to develop a coherent historical narrative of events.  In healthcare, we are the historians, and the patient is the primary source.  It is our job to understand them and make sense of their medical narrative.  If we fail to do so, then we are the ones to blame, the “poor historians.”

That failure can lead to adverse consequences for the patient, and blaming them prevents a resolution.  Take, for instance, “no shows” – when a patient does not come in for a scheduled appointment.  The term itself is somewhat denigrating, and we typically view the consequence only from the provider perspective, such as decreased productivity or wasted resources.  We rarely think of it from the perspective of the patient: a lost opportunity to engage with their provider to address their health needs.  It might mean a delayed diagnosis, or a missed immunization or medication refill.  And our typical approach is to assume it was due to a failure on the part of the patient to remember they had an appointment.  The most common way to address missed appointments is through mail, phone, or text reminders.  Again, it’s blaming the patient, for either having a poor memory or lack of manners.  But what if the issue isn’t that the patient forgot?  What if they tried to take time off from work but couldn’t?  Or their transportation never materialized? Or they didn’t have the money for the co-pay?  Or they didn’t understand the appointment instructions because they were written in a language they don’t read?

Missed appointments are a potential source of health inequities.  National research, as well as our own data, show that a variety of marginalized groups are more likely to miss appointments than whites.  As with other health disparities, we have an obligation to understand and address the reasons behind these differences.  Equity demands that we help patients, not blame them.

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