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Book Review: When Doctors Don’t Listen: How to Avoid Misdiagnoses and Unnecessary Tests by Leana Wen & Joshua Kosowsky

I first learned about Dr. Leana Wen from Stanford’s Medicine X conference. She’s presented to their courses as well on the power of the patient narrative:

So when I found this book written by Leana and Dr. Kosowsky, I knew I needed to pick it up.

The goal of this book is to help educate patients on the questions to ask and things to do to avoid being misdiagnosed, unnecessary tests, and unneeded hospital stays.

One of the biggest issues in the last decade, according to Wen & Kosowsky, is the turn to the cookbook approach to health care. You have symptoms A, B, and C, so you must have disease AB. The era we’re in now with this approach is what they refer to as the Era of Depersonalized Diagnosis (the previous eras were Spiritual Healing & Magical Thinking, Early Empiricism & Disease Classification, and the Golden Age of Medical Diagnosis).

This cookbook approach to health care does not work for most. An example was given of a middle aged guy who came to the ER with chest pain… who had also been moving furniture recently. They kept him in the hospital overnight to run tests despite the fact that his practitioners didn’t think he had a heart attack and earlier tests basically showed that he had not.

The best way to fix these types of mistakes? By getting back to the importance of the doctor-patient relationship, of course!

When you go to the ER (or a doctor, but especially in the ER), they essentially want to find your chief complaint and narrow that down to 1-2 words (i.e., chest pain, hip pain, etc). These can often be paired up with pathways, or basically recipes that the doctors have been told to/feel they have to follow to eliminate big picture issues (i.e., heart attack, etc). Oftentimes, the correct chief complaint isn’t entered because someone hears something like chest pain and assumes that is the chief complaint and then follows the pathway. As a patient, you really have to make sure that you assert yourself, which also means asking why docs may be reacting to your story in such a way.

One of the things I loved most about this book was the different sections. There was one about patient stories, and those stories were used throughout the book as examples. There was another about a crash course on diagnosis, a prescription for patients, and another on the pillars to a better diagnosis. Every single section recapped information at the end, which is always great for those of us who have some memory or brain fog issues.

A big takeaway from this book is the advice Drs. Wen & Kosowsky give to patients. There is everything in here, from making sure doctors hear you (and what to do if they don’t) to making sure you have a working diagnosis before you leave to bringing up what you are most worried about to putting your symptoms in the context of YOUR life. Saying your hands hurt and lock up is one thing, but talking about how hard it is to live your day to day live because you can’t bathroom/cook/take care of your pets or kids is another.

The eight pillars to a better diagnosis are: tell your whole story, assert yourself in the doctors’ thought process, participate in your physical exam, make the differential diagnosis together, partner for the decision making process, apply tests rationally, use common sense to confirm the working diagnosis, and integrate the diagnosis into the healing process.

All in all, this book helps to get patients engaged and involved in their own health care – something that has been missing for some time and is also sorely needed. Drs. Wen & Kosowsky even point out that patients often feel as though it isn’t our place to tell the educated white coats they’ve got something wrong – or perhaps worse, to question them.

It’s time that we start becoming active and involved with our bodies, from what we eat to how we exercise to what we perceive as normal (regarding looks, etc) to the health care we receive. If you’re looking for a book to help you get started on that, look no further. This book is one of the better ones I’ve been able to read in a long while – go pick it up!

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