Autonomy In Medicine

Set Up

I’ve been thinking of patient autonomy and the humanness of physicians a lot recently. In my short time training to be a doctor, I’ve had many experiences that have brought these topics to light. Here are a few examples:

  • An attending physician told me he usually first recommends pills to women seeking birth control because he believes that women find it reassuring to have their period every month. Odd perspective as my experience as a woman is that some women find periods reassuring and many find them annoying. Odd perspective as my short time in his clinic showed implant and injectable birth control methods as the most common forms of birth control requested and used by patients. Odd perspective as research has shown LARC (which include implants and IUDs and NOT birth control pills) have greatly decreased unwanted pregnancies because they’ve removed the mishaps of having to remember to take a pill every day. Medicine is complex. It requires both keeping up with research and checking your personal beliefs at the door. The approach I’ve seen most physician take when discussing birth control is to outline the different available birth control options so patients can decide themselves which is best for them.  
  • I overheard an attending physician talking to a resident physician about a D&C they did recently. A D&C is a procedure that can either be used to end a pregnancy early on or clear a miscarriage that occurred early in pregnancy. The patient these physicians were discussing had the procedure to end pregnancy. The resident physician stated that she thought the patient was looking for validation from the attending physician for choosing to have the procedure. The attending physician shrugged. I (medical student) asked what the attending physician had told the patient. The attending physician said, “She doesn’t need to give me a reason for the D&C. I told her she doesn’t need to give me a reason to terminate the pregnancy.” I found this statement to be a powerful example of approaching medicine without imposing personal beliefs on a patient.
  • An attending physician walked out of a patient room and told me the patient’s problem was that she was naïve. This was his reaction to the patient (a pregnant woman) planning to visit friends/family in another city while in the third trimester of her pregnancy. The patient had gained too much weight during pregnancy. She also had high blood pressure at this appointment. When asked the patient described improving her diet. The physician laughed at her when she described eating salad. In self-defense, the patient then described eating very healthy-sounding salads. The patient’s trip would delay the follow up blood pressure reading the physician wanted by two days. The physician did not explain why he was concerned about hypertension specifically in the last weeks of pregnancy. I wondered why he didn’t recommend that the patient monitor her blood pressures with a home blood pressure cuff and bring in a log of her blood pressures when she was able to schedule her next appointment. It seemed the risk of delaying a blood pressure reading in the clinic by two days might be outweighed by the benefit of social support during the final weeks of pregnancy. I questioned the choice of “naïve” as his diagnosis. Why should she know about preeclampsia if he didn’t tell her? Naïve is a loaded term and isn’t one I’d be quick to use to describe a pregnant and uninsured woman with friends/family in multiple cities. Medicine is a team sport. Patients are the captains and physicians are the coaches. It’s important to remember that the patient is part of the team and that while they don’t bring medical knowledge, they do bring life knowledge.
  • The patient told the attending physician that they stopped their antipsychotic medications. The physician recommended that the patient continue taking their medications. The patient refused. The attending and the patient came up with a plan to watch for warning signs that the patient’s psychosis was returning. The patient continued to attend group therapy even though they stopped their medications. This allowed the group therapist to send a community crew out to the patient’s home to check on the patient when that patient showed psychotic behavior at the online group therapy session. The patient did not self-identify that their psychosis was returning. However, because they continued to attend group sessions they were still connected to care and were brought to the emergency room before their psychosis led to self-harm. I found this case an excellent example of a physician respecting autonomy while also trying to prevent serious health outcomes for her patient.

Reflection

Medical school, residency, and being a physician teach us to solve complex problems. They teach us the complexities of the human body and how to cure diseases and treat symptoms. They teach us to think critically and sift through data efficiently. They provide us with guidelines and treatment recommendations. But, medical school, residency, and practicing medicine don’t and can’t teach us the complexity of each patient. They can’t give us the ability to foresee the future or understand patients’ life goals better than patients do themselves. And, despite our great knowledge as physicians, we can’t (and will never) have all the answers. Despite extensive training, medical research, and detailed guidelines medicine is still decided by humans (yes, physicians are just humans) and is (therefore) based partly on intuition, experience, and practiced guessing.

In medicine we are fixated on being right. Our goal is to reduce suffering, cure disease, and help patients navigate illness. And while as doctors we strive to cure, as humans we know that life can be more complex than curing. As humans we know life is paired with death. As humans we know not all questions have an answer and not all problems have a solution (at least yet). And as humans we know that health, sickness, healing, recovery, pain, and death are individual experiences that share commonalities across individuals but (ultimately) are unique experiences that each person endures differently.

In my short time in the hospital, I’ve already observed patients losing their autonomy. I’ve seen patients’ wishes ignored and explanations of why skipped or glossed over. I’ve seen us (medical experts) angered when patients don’t follow all our recommendations, insulted when we’re asked why, and forceful that our way is the only right way. And I’ve seen patients suffer. I’ve seen patients suffer taking our recommendations and I’ve seen them suffer when they refused our recommendations. And while suffering seems to be a part of some points in all lives, it also seems that sometimes in addition to our patients suffering we (physicians) push our patients to accept a treatment plan that is discordant with their values and life goals. It seems sometimes that we add to suffering by piling on shame or judgement.

In medical school, in residency, and as physicians we are taught to find the truth and to be right and to be directive. We are taught to recommend the best medicine has to offer. Yet, the best options based on evidence are not always the best option for an individual patient. And even if they seem right, the best options are not foolproof. The best options are based on probabilities, percentages of effectiveness and likelihood of reducing disease or preventing further harm. Probabilities are helpful, but they are not certainties.   

I’ve been thinking of medical recommendations and patient autonomy and the humanness of doctors because medicine can be hierarchical. It can be rigid with the attending physician setting the law; a mix of other players like nurses, medical students, and resident physicians in the middle; and the patient disempowered.

There are more cases than I presented above that I’ve experience which illustrated the complexities of patient autonomy and the humanness of doctors. Medical school is a whirlwind of learning. What I’ve come to discover, however, is that all the learning isn’t strictly medical. I’m also learning how I’d like to conduct myself when I’m an independently practicing physician, the ethics of medicine, and the challenges of working in a field where the outcome is dependent on the efforts of all team members.

As I reflect on the hierarchy and the complexity of medicine, if I could hold one piece of advice for myself as my training continues it would be to ensure my understanding of medicine is excellent while also remembering that patients are autonomous individuals. This advice reminds me that my job is ultimately to help people navigate the complexities of health and illness. This advice acknowledges that patients can say “no” and that the “why” is just as important as the “right answer.” This advice helps me to remember that my patients and I are a team. And just as I can decline or refer a patient to another physician if I am not comfortable with a patient’s request, my patient can also decline my recommendations or seek the medical expertise of another.