The pandemic that’s held the world in a grip of fear and uncertainty should have motivated us to trust the medical profession more, not less, yet there’s a reported growing distrust of medical professionals by the public. Distrust in medicine, and in doctors, is actually nothing new. In fact, studies of women and African Americans have yielded conclusions that these two demographics specifically are less motivated to trust doctors due to negative experiences.
I know firsthand how they feel. It’s been years since I took the counsel of a doctor at face value and without apprehension, and now, I’m a few months shy of undoubtedly the biggest change I will ever undergo – giving birth to my first child. Though the experiences which have largely formulated my attitudes have only been a handful in number, they’ve been momentous in the scope of my adult life and motivated me to completely distrust the medical profession. Here’s why.
I Was Misdiagnosed and Misled
I’ve written extensively about being misdiagnosed at 17 with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), which led to me taking hormonal birth control for over five years. Long story short, it was a living nightmare, and understandably, that’s where this attitude began. As it turned out I was in good company. 12 million adults are misdiagnosed every year, and women are 20-30% more likely to be misdiagnosed. I never experienced an actual period until I quit birth control, though I thought I was having them monthly on the pill, and every decision – dietary, social, emotional, mental – that I made between the ages of 17 to 22 was dictated by the artificial hormones screwing around with my brain.
12 million adults are misdiagnosed every year, and women are 20-30% more likely to be misdiagnosed.
There’s a strange stigma even now to discussing how birth control, the creation which gifted us the sexual revolution and feminism, can negatively affect and impact women. But as I learned following my years on hormonal birth control, just because no one talks about their terrible experiences doesn’t mean they don’t have them, though I used to believe otherwise.
After birth control, I struggled more than anything else with getting to know my body all over again. I also struggled with finding a doctor I could trust, and I quickly learned that the alternative, holistic options I was exploring for my own benefit weren’t highly regarded by the mainstream, though they worked well for me.
Distrust in Doctors Is Growing
Medical professionals are none too pleased that distrust of their profession is growing. Once upon a time (before the internet age at least), more than 75% of Americans had “great confidence” in their doctors. Today, that number sits at 34%.
For many, this distrust and disillusionment with medicine, not in theory but as a profession and a career, originated two years ago. Our initial uncertainty fed our hysteria, but once we had more information about which demographics were contracting the coronavirus, who was especially susceptible, and adverse reactions to the heavily touted vaccine were becoming increasingly common, we were fed a politicized narrative that essentially, despite this overwhelming evidence, nothing had changed.
Distrust of medical professionals is widely regarded as a blanket distrust of public health and an unwillingness to participate in whatever benefits the mystical but all-powerful greater good. Doctors have the education, years and years of training and experience, the credentials, certifications and licenses, all of which signify that they should be immune from criticism, questioning, or lack of confidence. But credentials and degrees don’t prevent people from learning they’ve been misled – whether intentionally or unintentionally – and those same qualifications don’t prevent those medical professionals from making errors.
Qualifications don’t prevent medical professionals from making errors.
One researcher accurately suggests that if medical professionals hope to have the trust and confidence of their patients, they should dedicate themselves to “clear, transparent communication, disclosing conflicts of interest, creating expectations of long-term relationships, and promoting shared interests and smaller power differences with patients.” But if distrust is growing and continues to, it’s evident that this is not the core mission of many doctors and physicians.
In fact, as Dr. Mary Talley Bowden has illustrated on her Twitter, some doctors have no problem vocalizing that they’d prefer to withhold the clear side effects of the Covid vaccine on female menstruation so as not to create “anti-vaccine fears.” For the seeming majority of doctors, “transparency” means quashing any fear or distrust of a politicized vaccine for a cold-like virus, even if it means effectively gaslighting patients and women in particular.
What Has To Change?
The Hippocratic Oath says first and foremost “do no harm.” It’s one thing to recognize that doctors, like the rest of us, are human and will inevitably make mistakes. It’s another for patients to be confronted with incontrovertible evidence and have those same doctors double down on a media narrative that shores up a pharmaceutical industry raking in billions, rather than support the individual health and wellbeing of each patient.
Even after recovering from the prescribed treatment for my misdiagnosed PCOS (in this case, the cure was definitely worse than the disease), my menstruation and ovulation were, understandably, messed up. I had no real conception of what my body was trying to tell me, and that it was in fact doing everything necessary to get me back to where I needed to be. Yet I still had doctors prescribing birth control to “treat” my absent ovulation or periods, so much so that I told them right off the bat that if hormonal birth control was their recommendation, I would find another physician. I saw seven different doctors in five years.
Why don’t doctors actually listen to their patients and acknowledge that maybe they do know what they’re feeling?
I was told that the chances of getting pregnant were extremely low or altogether impossible. I’m now halfway through my pregnancy with my first child. At 17, I was advised by one doctor to get a preventative hysterectomy, due to a family history of cancer. When I told them I planned to have kids, those desires weren’t even acknowledged. As a broke college student, I paid more in co-pays than I made in a month to see doctors for five minutes and have them waive all my concerns away.
Much of this discourse is focused on patients placing their trust in doctors. What is completely absent from this equation is medical professionals placing any confidence in their patients. To any physician that probably sounds ridiculous. But how ridiculous is it really to listen to the patient, acknowledge that maybe they do actually know what they’re feeling in their own body, and then take their concerns seriously? How else can you actually diagnose if you don’t pay attention to the symptoms?
And if doctors are so concerned about compliance rates and similar things, they could first and foremost place the trust they so desperately want in their patients. Any doctor-patient relationship is naturally imbalanced. The patient is vulnerable; the doctor has the authority and the position of power. If a relationship like that could only be restructured, removing the imbalance and restoring a baseline of trust and openness, we probably wouldn’t see the declining rates of confidence that we do now.
The response from medical professionals to this phenomenon isn’t comforting. When put in uncomfortable positions of criticism, most have doubled down, rather than engage in discussion or try to understand. In fact, most face distrust with condescension, treating dissenters as ignorant and uneducated. One individual who doesn’t trust the system is viewed as a threat to the entirety of public health. If distrust of just one physician indicates a weakening of the integrity of public health, perhaps it’s because that system was built on ego and status, and not on medicine.
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