According to a 2015 Pew Research study, about one in ten people doubt the safety of vaccines. About half of American adults use supplements, but only 23% of all supplement products were actually taken at the suggestion of a health care provider.
Doctors are challenged to steer their patients away from pseudoscience and unscientific claims and instead encourage patients to follow evidence-based treatments and advice.
Family medicine physicians Jennifer Caudle, DO, and Lt. Col. Natalie Nevins, DO, treat a wide range of patients and often deal with this issue in their practices. They share the following steps doctors can take to address their patients’ erroneous medical beliefs.
- Advise the risks and benefits
If patients are reluctant to take Dr. Caudle’s advice, she makes sure to inform them of the consequences of their medical decisions.
“It’s important to make the decision you think is right for you, but I want you to know the potential risks and benefits when it comes to health based on my knowledge as a physician and the best evidence we have out there,” Dr. Caudle says.
While doctors should stay steadfast in their beliefs of good medicine, they should still respect the decisions of their patients.
“I believe a patient who is able and confident to make decisions for themselves should,” Dr. Caudle says.
- Partner up
Working as a team allows for functional discussions instead of defensive debates.
“We are in this together to find the best results for the patient, not to be a dictator and tell them they have to listen to us, no matter what,” Dr. Nevins says.
Immediately dismissing a patient’s concerns as absurd, even if they’re not based in facts, can create stress in the patient-doctor team.
“Creating a defensive relationship breaks down the relationship between the physician and the patient and ultimately may break to the point where the patient doesn’t go to that physician,” Dr. Nevins says.
- Acknowledge the placebo effect
Sometimes the placebo effect is strong enough for patients to believe a product is working.
“The placebo effect is real, and if you believe that this product is helping you, then I’m not in a position to tell you it’s not if you feel better, as long as that product won’t hurt you,” Dr. Nevins says.
If patients truly believe chamomile tea helps them go to sleep faster, then Dr. Nevins supports them.
“I’d much rather have them do that if it helps them sleep than take another pill,” Dr. Nevins says.
- Track changes
When patients insist on taking harmless and unnecessary supplements anyway, Dr. Nevins suggests patients keep a diary. By tracking changes, patients can see their results or lack of results.
Patients will often come back to Dr. Nevins with the self-realization that the product they were using had unjustified claims attached to it.
“I didn’t have to shove it in their face and make them feel bad about the decisions they made,” Dr. Nevins says.
- Give patients evidence-based resources
Dr. Caudle will recommend factual sources like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website to patients who want more information about particular topics, and when doing so, she educates them on the importance of understanding where the information they’re reading is coming from.
When patients are considering trying a dubious product, Dr. Nevins advises them to find independent consumer reports that are not paid for by the company. This way she can actually determine what is in the product and if it has any use for the patient.
“When you partner with your patient and do the investigation together, everyone benefits,” Dr. Nevins says.
- Educate patients about marketing scams
Teaching patients about marketing ploys can help them make better decisions about what products and treatments they choose to use.
Dr. Nevins will ask patients questions about how many times a company will ask for money and if the company is making a call for urgency to buy a product before a discount expires.