Photo credit: RayNata, Creative Commons license

[The patient interactions in this post are amalgams of hundreds of patient encounters over my career. They are not accurate depictions of any encounter with any single patient.]

“I don’t like taking medicines.”

All physicians hear some form of this opinion very frequently. Even more frequently, patients don’t state this view outright but rely on it to completely subvert their doctor’s plans.

When I was new to practice such an utterance would shock and confuse me.

“I don’t want to take any medicines,” a patient would declare.

“That’s fine,” I would reassure my interlocutor. “It’s a free country. No one is going to force you to take medicines. But you should know that I’m a primary care doctor. I don’t do surgeries or procedures. I diagnose and treat medical problems, usually with medications. I’m not saying you have to change your opinion. I’m just saying you might be in the wrong place. You’re like the vegan bursting into the butcher shop to declare that you don’t want to buy meat.”

I’ve heard some version of this aversion to medications hundreds of times. Over the years I’ve also realized that it is usually adopted by patients without any serious reflection.

“I’d like to be on the fewest medications as possible,” a patient with diabetes, heart disease, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure would announce.

“Well, the fewest medications you can take is zero. Should we just stop them all?”

Lots of patients adopt this anti-medication preference in the absence of any evidence or serious thought. A strong preference without analysis or evidence is simply a bias. (When I have a strong preference in the absence of evidence, it’s a philosophy; when other people have it, it’s a bias.)

Now, some biases are harmless. I like Folgers instant coffee (black), and you like vanilla Frappuccino. I bicycle; you jog. That’s all great. But if a bias threatens to worsen your health, it deserves a little attention. Some thinking might be useful to either confirm it as a belief you want to live by, or discard it to the cognitive ash heap.

The problem with the anti-medication bias is that most doctors are too busy to argue with you. Let’s say your cholesterol is extremely high. Your doctor might recommend attempts at exercise and weight loss for a few months. After that if your cholesterol is unimproved she may recommend a cholesterol-lowering medication. She may or may not have time to mention that this medication has been proven to prevent strokes and heart attacks in patients with high cholesterol. She might or might not mention the rare and usually tolerable side effects you might expect. But if all she hears from you is “I’m already taking too many medicines,” she may do the expedient thing, which is to document your refusal to take cholesterol medicine and leave it at that. If you’re lucky, she’ll readdress this again in more detail in a future visit. If you’re unlucky the future visit will be when she sees you in the emergency department during a heart attack.

Because I have more time to spend with each patient than most doctors, I have a lot of experience in trying to understand and overcome this anti-medication bias. I certainly don’t advocate compensating with the opposite bias – taking as many medications as possible. (A small number of patients do seem to believe that there is a pill for everything that ails them. That’s a subject for a different post.) My suggestion instead is that each medication be judged on the basis of its own benefits and harms. You don’t want to minimize the medicines that you take; you want to benefit from all the medicines whose benefits to you exceed the harms.

Now, don’t get me wrong. There are certainly good reasons not take a medication. You might develop a side-effect. Discuss that with your doctor. Some side-effects diminish with time. Some are annoying but not dangerous. But obviously some are intolerable and might be a good reason to stop taking a medication. So by all means balance the risks, the expense, and the side effects of medications against their benefits, but don’t make a decision before even doing the calculation.

Of course balancing these issues takes time and thought. It requires that the patient be willing to ask important questions (“What side effects should I expect?”) and express any apprehensions. It requires that the doctor answer the questions and make sure the patient understands why the medication is being recommended. That is more difficult and less efficient than writing a prescription and bolting to the next patient.

So please help me eradicate the anti-medication bias. Your health might improve, and you’ll save your doctor a headache or two. Which reminds me, I need some ibuprofen.