“Patient noncompliance.” I wasn’t very familiar with this term until I started my clinical rotations. But after just the first week, I started noticing that health care providers throw this phrase around all time.
We particularly like using it as an excuse. Why did this diabetic patient require a foot amputation? Why does this patient come in monthly with congestive heart failure exacerbation? Why did this patient suffer a stroke? It’s often simply attributed to patient noncompliance.
What bothers me the most about this phrase, though, is how it’s often stated with such disdain. We act as if it’s incomprehensible that someone would ignore our evidence-based recommendations. If the patient would only bother to listen, he or she would get better. If we were patients, we would be compliant.
But that’s simply not true. We are no different from our patients. We practice our own form of noncompliance. It’s called guideline non-adherence.
Despite the fact that many guidelines are created after systematic reviews and meta-analyses – processes we would never have time to go through ourselves – we, like our own patients, are often noncompliant.
Research on guideline adherence has been around since guidelines started becoming prominent in the early 1990s. Despite the many studies and interventions to improve guideline adherence, the rates of guideline adherence still remain dismally low.
I find this particularly disconcerting. Despite my own interest in research, it makes me question the value of research. Why do we spend millions of dollars to find a better intervention that does not change how most providers deliver health care?
I had a patient this week that really screwed up his medical care when he experienced a predicted side effect of curative chemotherapy. Despite clear instructions and access to every number my partners, my staff and I have, including office, triage, cell, and answering service, he did not reach out. Day-by-day he lay in bed, as he grew weaker and multiple systems failed. No one contacted me. Finally, he sent an email to a doctor 3000 miles away, in California. That doc forwarded the email to me. I sent the patient to the hospital.
Did we rush to the emergency room, to salvage his life? Of course. Were there innumerable tests, complex treatments, multiple consults and an ICU admission? You bet. Did I patiently explain to him what was happening? Yes. Did I look him in the eye and tell him that I was upset, that he had neglected his own care by not reaching out and in doing so he violated the basic tenants of a relationship which said that he was the patient and I was the doctor? Did I remind him what I expect from him and what he can expect from me? You better believe it, I was really pissed!
The practice of medicine for most doctors is fueled by a passion to help our fellowman. This is not a vague, misty, group hug sort of passion. This is a tear-down-the-walls and go-to-war passion. We do not do this for money, fame, power or babes; we do this because we care. Without an overwhelming desire to treat, cure and alleviate suffering, it would not be possible to walk into an oncology practice each morning. Therefore, just as we expect a lot of ourselves, we darn well expect a lot out of our patients.
“Why aren’t you taking your cholesterol medication?” I asked the woman.
With the coronary disease I diagnosed a year ago, my discovery that she had not taken her medication was very troubling.
“It made me tired,” she replied matter-of-factly. ”And besides, the cardiologist said the stress test was negative, so my heart is fine!”
I ordered the stress test after her heart calcium score was significantly elevated, revealing significant atherosclerosis. She totally misunderstood the results, and I needed to fix that problem. So I pulled out my secret weapon: a good analogy.
“The purpose of the calcium score test was to see if you had termites in your home” I explained. ”I found them. The negative stress test just said that the termites hadn’t eaten through your walls. It’s good news that your walls aren’t falling down, but they will if we don’t stop the termites.”
Her eyes opened wide comprehension: the termites were eating her walls. She was living on borrowed time.
“Would you take a medication if it didn’t have side effects?” I asked.
She quickly nodded. Of course she would. From now on she would be a compliant patient.
Compliance is good. Noncompliance is bad. It’s something I learned very early in my training: patients who do what their doctors say are compliant (good), and those who don’t follow instructions are noncompliant (bad). If you are lucky as a doctor, you have compliant patients. They are the best kind. They obey their doctors. They are submissive. Noncompliant patients are bad; they are a bunch of deadbeats.
Please hold your nasty comments; I don’t really believe my patients should obey or submit to me.*