When your doctor says “I don’t know”

When your doctor says

We often go to the doctor’s office under the assumption that he will be able to spot and solve the problem that is causing annoying symptoms. But, is that always the case? Sometimes we need to run additional tests, but at the end, most doctors do not feel comfortable saying “I don’t know”, which may be what they are thinking when trying to figure out your results.

Is this a qualification issue? Is your doctor not a good doctor? When do you need a second medical opinion? These issues are very different from one case to another, but in this article, you will finally understand why this happens, which may help you reach your own conclusions and make a final decision.

Specialists vs. Primary Care Physicians

The study of human medicine is vast and challenging, and there are two main variants of study we should evaluate before deciding what’s the right doctor for you. You can either a) go to a primary care physician or b) visit a specialist. Primary care physicians include doctors trained in internal medicine, family medicine, and geriatrics. Specialists include cardiologists, oncologists, surgeons, and many others.

In most cases, primary care physicians are the ones referring patients to specialists in particular cases. But isn’t it better to shorten the process and go straight to the specialist’s office?

What we do not realize is that both variants have their own limitations. Primary care physicians are trained to see the big picture, and sometimes miss minute details that specialists catch right away. On the other hand, specialists focus on their own specialty, and are not likely to help much if your real problem comes from elsewhere.

Each one of them comes across the “I don’t know” barrier, and that does not mean they are less qualified. They are just focused on a different field, each one with their own limitations.

The challenges of being a doctor, and case conferences

When you enter med school, there’s definitely much to learn in a short time. There are many details about how the body works and the thousands of ways it may stop working as it should. Med students give their best to understand and apply knowledge, and the educating body makes sure they do not leave med school without knowing what they consider necessary.

For example, primary care physicians go through each specialty, one by one. Educators and residents in each specialty consider their own field as essential medical knowledge, hoping that students will obtain a very high proportion of their field. If you duplicate that for each specialty, what you end up having is an overwhelming pressure that takes its toll on emerging doctors.

Yes, it is impossible to know every small detail about the human body, but there’s something doctors do to counter that situation. Case conferences are very popular in hospitals and clinics, especially for rare cases or to follow-up on hospitalized patients. Sometimes, family members are invited in, and they would see a board of doctors of many specialties discussing the same case and each one giving their own points of view.

If you’ve been in one of these meetings, you would often see doctors of different specialties giving different views of the same patient, which may seem puzzling if you think there’s only one right answer in medicine. But the reality is that medicine is everything but simple, and different opinions on how to act and what to do may all be right depending on the training and the medical school.

What you can do if you’re not sure about your doctor

Now you understand why there’s some uncertainty in medicine, what can you do if you’re in the middle of it?

This is what you can do:

  • Have realistic expectations: It is very important to understand that uncertainty is a part of medicine doctors should always manage. Ideally, uncertainty will be minimal, but even the best scanners and diagnostic tools can get it wrong.
  • Trust the referral system: If you were referred to a specialist, follow instructions and take a deep breath. This is how the system is supposed to work. It does not necessarily mean you’re suffering from a severe condition. There are probably details a specialist will see more thoroughly, and your primary care physician knows.
  • Ask for a second medical opinion: If you’re hesitant and feel very insecure about your diagnosis, a second medical opinion can be of great help. Just make sure the reason why you want another opinion. Is it because you want a different diagnosis and someone to tell you what you want to hear? In some cases, a second medical opinion may not be a good idea. For example, is your life in danger and you require timely decisions to be made?

Remember, each situation is completely different, and you need to make your own decisions about your medical attention. If you think there are liability issues or feel not sure about your doctor, you’re always free to explore your options and stay with the ones that make you feel more comfortable and safer. Just remember all doctors say “I don’t know” at some point, and that does not necessarily invalidate his /her qualifications as a healthcare professional.


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