You and the skeptical patient: Who’s the doctor here?


Gregory A. Hood, MD, remembers a patient of his who was perpetually dubious about COVID-19 – and then couldn’t be saved.

“I spoke to him on many occasions about the dangers of COVID, but he just didn’t believe me,” said Dr. Hood, an internist in Lexington, Ky. “He just didn’t give me enough time to help him. He waited to let me know he was ill with COVID and took days to pick up the medicine. Unfortunately, he then passed away.”

The rise of the skeptical patient

It can be extremely frustrating for doctors when patients question or disbelieve their physician’s medical advice and explanations. And many physicians resent the amount of time they spend trying to explain or make their case, especially during a busy day. But patients’ skepticism about the validity of some treatments seems to be increasing.

“Patients are now more likely to have their own medical explanation for their complaint than they used to, and that can be bad for their health,” Dr. Hood said.

Dr. Hood sees medical cynicism as part of Americans’ growing distrust of experts, leveraged by easy access to the internet. “When people Google, they tend to look for support of their opinions, rather than arrive at a fully educated decision.”

Only about half of patients believe their physicians “provide fair and accurate treatment information all or most of the time,” according to a 2019 survey by the Pew Research Center.

Patients’ distrust has become more obvious during the COVID-19 pandemic, said John Schumann, MD, an internist with Oak Street Health, a practice with more than 500 physicians and other providers in 20 states, treating almost exclusively Medicare patients.

“The skeptics became more entrenched during the pandemic,” said Dr. Schumann, who is based in Tulsa, Okla. “They may think the COVID vaccines were approved too quickly, or believe the pandemic itself is a hoax.”

“There’s a lot of antiscience rhetoric now,” Dr. Schumann added. “I’d say about half of my patients are comfortable with science-based decisions and the other half are not.”

What are patients mistrustful about?

Patients’ suspicions of certain therapies began long before the pandemic. In dermatology, for example, some patients refuse to take topical steroids, said Steven R. Feldman, MD, a dermatologist in Winston-Salem, N.C.

“Their distrust is usually based on anecdotal stories they read about,” he noted. “Patients in other specialties are dead set against vaccinations.”

In addition to refusing treatments and inoculations, some patients ask for questionable regimens mentioned in the news. “Some patients have demanded hydroxychloroquine or Noromectin, drugs that are unproven in the treatment of COVID,” Dr. Schumann said. “We refuse to prescribe them.”

Dr. Hood said patients’ reluctance to follow medical advice can often be based on cost. “I have a patient who was more willing to save $20 than to save his life. But when the progression of his test results fit my predictions, he became more willing to take treatments. I had to wait for the opportune moment to convince him.”

Many naysayer patients keep their views to themselves, and physicians may be unaware that the patients are stonewalling. A 2006 study estimated that about 10%-16% of primary care patients actively resist medical authority.

Dr. Schumann cited patients who don’t want to hear an upsetting diagnosis. “Some patients might refuse to take a biopsy to see if they have cancer because they don’t want to know,” he said. “In many cases, they simply won’t get the biopsy and won’t tell the doctor that they didn’t.”


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