Why Doctors Should Be Listening To Their Patients, Not Relying On Scans

doctor listeningThe world is a fast-paced environment. No one has time for anything anymore. In medicine, there is constant pressure to see more patients and do more electronic paperwork, and productivity is a key guidepost to life. However, slowing down and spending a few minutes listening to the world around you and to patients may actually be more rewarding, and solve more problems.

Listening To Your Patients

Being an older physician, technology was just beginning to influence medicine when I began training. CT scans were just starting to become available at the beginning of my training, and MRI scans were not available until I was in practice for a few years. The hallmark of a good physician was their ability to make a diagnosis based on a patient’s history, a physical exam, and some basic testing. The patient encounter was the critical event, as was at getting the story.

Most of the time, if one listens to the complaint of a patient closely, the diagnosis of the problem becomes much more clear. The physical exam is also critical; this is especially important since high technology studies like MRI scans often find problems that are not the cause of a patient’s symptoms. Going old school and using the technology as an assistant and not depending on it often leads to a better treatment plan for a patient.

Treatment and Listening

There are many different styles of physician practice. Being in the field of pain management, one can use multiple approaches to the same problem. One common approach for low back pain is that everyone needs to have every structure in the low back injected with steroid. Another style is that the only treatment that is needed is a course of extreme physical therapy. The approach that seems to be the most effective is take a good history, do an exam of the patient and then decide what is wrong and needed. Most of the time, it will yield a more precise course of action.

Multiple times I have found that an MRI may show multiple significant looking issues, but the history and exam show no correlated problems that would warrant treatment. The body can adapt to multiple things seen on a scan and not have any problems. Treating a scan versus treating a person can be the absolute wrong thing. Furthermore, most problems can be treated in a number of ways, and the choice is often dependent on the approach the patient wants once they understand the options available.

Listening and examining a patient may be considered old fashioned. As a new physician it is often hard to understand the subtle things a patient is trying to convey. Sending a patient for tests and treating the tests is far easier. As an older physician, a lot of the stories become very classic, as is the exam. For example, spinal stenosis in the elderly has a unique story of pain when walking a few feet and being just fine when sitting or lying down. The story tells more in a few words then the MRI and then the treatment is absolutely defined by what the patient desires. Being old fashioned and listening is not glamorous, but it often is a more effective way to get the job done right.

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Thomas Cohn, MD

Interventional pain doctor helping Minnesotans manage back, neck, foot, and other pain. Board-certified in physical medicine and rehabilitation with additional board-certification in pain management from the American Board of Anesthesiology (ABA), the American Board of Interventional Pain Physicians (ABIPP) and the American Board of Pain Medicine (ABPM).

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