Yes, I Am Sure

“Are you sure you didn’t suffer traumatic brain injury?” That was the question I was asked a few years back from both an associate professor and the academic dean from the optometry school at a prestigious university. The fact that they asked me that question should have set off alarms, but I was, at the time, still under the impression that conventional doctors could solve my problem.

Looking back at my history of medical professional interactions, I am amazed at how fast they try to pin the symptoms on you when they realize that your condition falls within their knowledge gap. Whether it’s arrogance or an inability to articulate, I have experienced a plague in the medical community: the incapacity to admit they don’t know.

Even though they may never explicitly admit that they don’t know what it wrong with you, the way they treat you reads loud and clear:

  • Specialists: They may send you to specialists in other fields to try and help them with their diagnosis. This is not a bad thing and may very well help you in the long run. The problem I have found is that not a single specialist referred me to a colleague in their same field. This screams of overconfidence and a refusal to admit that they don’t know everything in their own specialization.
  • Psychology: Some will try to convince you that your issue is all in your head, and refer you to a psychologist or psychiatrist. If your insurance covers it, or money is not an issue, I see no problem talking to someone to role out the possibility of a psychological manifestation. Please keep in mind that this is a common tactic used by doctors, so don’t be surprised when the psychologist or psychiatrist informs you that your issue is not psychological.
  • Repeat Customer: They were never able to successfully treat you, but want you to continue to schedule visits at a set interval for monitoring purposes. At this point, not only have they been unsuccessful at helping you, they also want you to continue paying them for nothing.

Why is it that many doctors seem incapable of admitting their ignorance? Is it to protect the image of medical professionals as great problem solvers? Do they feel the need to protect their egos? Maybe they are afraid that those who received poor customer service would demand a refund. Whatever the reason, it is unacceptable, expensive and potentially dangerous.

On a side note: Freakonomics published a great podcast episode titled “The Three Hardest Words in the English Language” where they discuss our unwillingness to say the words “I don’t know.” It’s worth a listen, even if it doesn’t focus on medical professionals’ elusive ways to avoid admitting ignorance.