Medical science has done very well in combating illnesses, but it has yet to tackle the complexities of human behavior, including complacency. When a patient fails to take their illness or medical condition seriously or fails to follow, common-sense safety rules, the outcome can be serious, even fatal.
Here are some examples from my practice:
- My patient with diabetes had been insulin-dependent for so long that he didn’t even think about it anymore. He would take his blood sugar test (sometimes) and his usual dose of insulin (if he remembered). He knew what he was supposed to eat, but when he discovered frozen yogurt, he was hooked. He guessed at the amount of insulin to adjust to make up for those frequent, dietary indiscretions. Consequently, his diabetes was out of control most of the time. This led to a partial amputation of his foot from a minor infection, and eventually contributed to his demise.
- Driving can be routine, and even boring. Seatbelts are the law, but many people fail to use them consistently. My patient was not wearing a seatbelt when a large truck rear-ended her vehicle at a traffic light. She sustained some serious neck injuries.
- A parent told me that her children had taken swimming lessons so she had stopped supervising them around the pool. Then one day a protective cover came off the drain to the spa, and her son tried to sit on it. When the filter came on, he was stuck at the bottom. Fortunately, another sibling alerted the parent and he was saved from near-drowning by seconds. The parent now supervises pool activities and the broken drain guard was replaced.
In order to effectively manage chronic diseases, like diabetes or hypertension, patients must first accept the disease, and then take an active role in management. A medical provider can prescribe a blood pressure pill, but it is up to patients to swallow them every day. When patients actively participate in their care, like taking their blood pressure at home, they are more likely to be in control. Since diabetes and hypertension can have very subtle symptoms (unless there is a crisis), it is common for patients to become complacent.
The same is true for preventing emergencies and following safety recommendations, wherever we are. Everyone knows that seatbelts help prevent serious injury in an accident, but it is up to us to buckle them every time we get in the car.
The complacency equation has two sides. I have seen medical professional become complacent as well. They spend little time with their patients, often skipping the exam (I have experienced this several times when I was in the patient role). They may fail to notice critical health maintenance recommendations, like cholesterol tests, pap smears, or mammograms.
Medical care is a team effort, and the most important member of that team is not the doctor, but the patient. Patients cannot afford to become complacent, and they can’t allow their medical provider to do the same.