This interesting opinion piece from a pediatrician – Dr.Russell Saunders –expresses frustration with parents who don’t want their children vaccinated and I share that frustration. However, I also admit to having mixed feelings. I sympathize with Dr. Saunders, but I also feel a bit upset with him for falling into the trap that my good friend, Dr. Saul Weiner at the University of Illinois, describes as the “I-it” relationship trap. The “I” in the trap is the doctor who can easily see the patient as the “it” that should merely do as it is told. It often is easier and more efficient to just tell a person what the medical evidence suggests they do and move on to the next person, however the real job of a physician is much more difficult and nuanced. It is to be with patients and guide them through the uncertainty and discomfort that is illness by first recognizing what makes them unique as a person and giving them respect and trust and then applying scientific medicine. Unfortunately, many physicians only focus on the respect they are due as the doctor -- and not on the respect they must give their patients -- and that impairs their ability to form a therapeutic relationship. In a sense, Dr. Saunders’ reasoning is evidence that medicine continues to cling to the belief that human beings are rational – that by presenting them with the facts, we can convince them. Behavioral economics teaches us otherwise.
Dr. Saunders says he is not looking to return to the paternalism that used to characterize medical care. However, we risk a new type of paternalism – one that places absolute faith in the medical scientist – a belief that the only way to proceed is the way the peer-reviewed medical journals and the expert committees declare to be correct. Dr. Saunders writes:
There will be times when parents and I may not see eye to eye, but not where I’m using the best evidence at hand to support my recommendations. Maybe they’ll want a test I think is useless, or want to use a supplement shown to be harmful. Perhaps it will be a referral for an intervention shown to have no benefit. If I can’t hope to persuade them by making reference to the available research, what can I expect to be for them other than a rubber stamp for their ideas? If medical science can’t answer the meritless qualms they have about vaccines, when can I use it at all?
I read this and can’t help but believe that the author does not really believe everything he writes. for he seems to be a caring physician. I am sure he knows that respect for the parent would warrant a discussion of why parents feel and believe the way they do. That discussion would require an understanding of their values, their culture and their beliefs, rather than simply pointing to the “available research” as the right way. The approach he writes about implies that if you can’t understand the importance of the science, you are bad parents and not worthy of my help.
His opinion piece also lacks the humility that should be inherent in any mutual trust relationship, especially one that goes beyond a friendship and is a true calling, as medicine should be. Medical facts change; new research brings new insights every day. Nothing is “settled,” and everything changes, even vaccinations; new vaccine formulations are constantly being developed. The Salk vaccine for polio was a godsend and was the only right answer until the Sabin vaccine was developed.
That does not mean I would agree with parents who refuse vaccination and just say “yes” to their request not to vaccinate their children. I would not. But I would also not reject them out of hand and assume that if they can’t accept the available research, my answer should be to ban them from my practice.
Dr. Saunders’ opinion piece reflects many of the frustration in medicine today -- with one of the root causes related to the incentives put in place by health plans. I cannot help but feel that our approach to health benefits, and our push toward efficiency in medicine, has created a situation in which the building of mutual trust between a doctor and a patient has become almost impossible. Health plans tell doctors which algorithm to follow and reimburse them in ways that encourage shorter office visits, more use of physician extenders, and adherence to protocols -- no matter what the patients’ beliefs and values are. Following those protocols and practicing the way Dr. Saunders writes about -- refusing patients who do not follow “doctor’s orders”--will make the numbers look better for a practice, make it more likely to receive the health plan quality bonuses, and make it more efficient. It may also relieve physicians’ frustration in this modern day system. But will it truly help those who are most in need? I am not so sure.
I can’t help but think back to my days in practice, when I treated patients who, due to their religious convictions, refused blood transfusions. As a gastroenterologist treating people who suffered from acute gastrointestinal bleeding, I knew that prohibition against blood transfusions went against every care algorithm and every medical standard. I would always try to convince patients of the need for the transfusion, but always with respect for their beliefs and with the proviso that I would treat and help them no matter what they decided. That respect was critical for mutual trust. What was so very interesting to me was that these patients were treated successfully, and we did not lose patients at a higher rate than other patients who presented with the same problems. Many who initially refused transfusion did accept it as their condition progressed.
That taught me a valuable lesson: Science is necessary for care, and following the most up-to-date recommendations is important, but nowhere near as important as respecting your patient -- and fostering mutual trust in such a way as to be not only a doctor, but a healer.