What to Do When Patients Don’t Listen

You discuss and decide on the best course of treatment for your patients, write prescriptions, and recommend lifestyle modifications to enhance treatment outcomes and overall wellness. But once they leave your office, following through is up to the patient. What happens when they don’t listen?

The term “nonadherent” has gradually replaced “noncompliant” in the physician lexicon as a nod to the evolving doctor-patient relationship. Noncompliance implies that a patient isn’t following their doctor’s orders. Adherence, on the other hand, is a measure of how closely your patient’s behavior matches the recommendations you’ve made. It’s a subtle difference but an important distinction in approaching care.

“Noncompliance is inherently negative feedback to the patient, whereas there’s a reason for nonadherence, and it’s usually external,” says Sharon Rabinovitz, MD, president of the Georgia Academy of Family Physicians.

Why Won’t Patients Listen?

The reasons behind a patient’s nonadherence are multifaceted, but they are often driven by social determinants of health, such as transportation, poor health literacy, finances, and lack of access to pharmacies.

Other times, patients don’t want to take medicine, don’t prioritize their health, or they find the dietary and lifestyle modifications doctors suggest too hard to make or they struggle at losing weight, eating more healthfully, or cutting back on alcohol, for instance.

“When you come down to it, the big hindrance of it all is cost and the ability for the patient to be able to afford some of the things that we think they should be able to do,” says Teresa Lovins, MD, physician owner of Lovin My Health DPC in Columbus, Indiana, and a member of the board of directors of the American Academy of Family Physicians.

Another common deterrent to treatment is undesired side effects that a patient may not want to mention.

“For example, a lot of patients who are taking antidepressants have sexual dysfunction associated with those medications,” says Rabinovitz. “If you don’t ask the right questions, you’re not going to be able to fully assess the experience the patient is having and a reason why they might not take it [the medication].”

Much nonadherence is intentional and is based on experience, belief systems, and knowledge. For example, the American Medical Association finds that patients may not understand why they need a certain treatment (and therefore dismiss it), or they may be overloaded with multiple medications, fear dependency on a drug, have a mistrust of pharmaceutical companies or the medical system as a whole, or have symptoms of depression that make taking healthy actions more difficult. In addition, patients may be unable to afford their medication, or their lack of symptoms may lead them to believe they don’t really need the prescription, as occurs with disorders such as hypertension or high cholesterol.

“In my training, we did something called Balint training, where we would get together as a group with attendings and discuss cases that were difficult from a biopsychosocial perspective and consider all the factors in the patient perspective, including family dynamics, social systems, and economic realities,” says Russell Blackwelder, MD, director of geriatric education and associate professor of family medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina.

“That training was, for me, very helpful for opening up and being more empathetic and really examining the patient’s point of view and everything that impacts them.”

Lovins agrees that it’s crucial to establish a good rapport and build mutual trust.

“If you don’t know the patient, you have a harder time asking the right questions to get to the meat of why they’re not taking their medicine or what they’re not doing to help their health,” she says. “It takes a little bit of trust on both parts to get to that question that really gets to the heart of why they’re not doing what you’re asking them to do.”

How to Encourage Adherence

Although there may not be a one-size-fits-all approach for achieving general adherence or adherence to a medication regimen, some methods may increase success.

Kenneth Zweig, MD, an internist at Northern Virginia Family Practice Associates, in Alexandria, Virginia, says that convincing patients to make one small change that they can sustain can get the ball rolling.

“I had one patient who was very overweight and had high blood pressure, high cholesterol, back pain, insomnia, and depression, who was also drinking three to four beers a night,” Zweig says. “After a long discussion, I challenged him to stop all alcohol for 1 week. At the end of the week, he noticed that he slept better, lost some weight, had lower blood pressure, and had more energy. Once he saw the benefits of this one change, he was motivated to improve other aspects of his health as well. He improved his diet, started exercising, and lost over 50 pounds. He has persisted with these lifestyle changes ever since.”

A team-based approach may also increase treatment understanding and adherence. In one older study, patients who were assigned to team-based care, including care by pharmacists, were significantly more adherent to medication regimens. Patients were more comfortable asking questions and raising concerns when they felt their treatment plan was a collaboration between several providers and themselves.

Lovins says to always approach the patient with a positive. “Say, what can we do together to make this work? What are your questions about this medication? And try and focus on the positive things that you can change instead of leaving the patient with a negative feeling or that you’re angry with them or that you’re unhappy with their choices. Patients respond better when they are treated as part of the team.”

Fear of judgment can also be a barrier to honesty between patients and their doctors. Shame creates a reluctance to admit nonadherence. Lovins tells Medscape that it’s the physician’s responsibility to create a blame-free space for patients to speak openly about their struggles with treatment and reasons for nonadherence.

When Should You Redirect Care?

Ultimately, the goal is good care and treatment of disease. However, if you and your patient are at an impasse and progress is stalling or failing, it may be appropriate to encourage the patient to seek care elsewhere.

“Just like any relationship, some physician-patient relationships are just not a good fit,” says Blackwelder. And this may be the reason why the patient is nonadherent — something between the two of you doesn’t click.

While there are ethical considerations for this decision, most medical boards have guidelines on how to go about it, Blackwelder tells Medscape.

“In the state of South Carolina, we have to be available to provide urgent coverage for at least 30 days and notify the patient in writing that they need to find somebody else and to help them find somebody else if we can.”

Just as with care, a clear conversation is the best practice if you’re proposing a potential shift away from a physician-patient relationship. You might say, We’re not making the kind of progress I’d like to see, and I’m wondering if you think working with another doctor may help you.

“The most important thing is being very honest and transparent with the patient that you’re concerned you’re not making the appropriate strides forward,” says Rabinovitz. Then you can ask, ‘Am I the right doctor to help you reach your goals? And if not, how can I help you get to where you need to be?’ “

Rachel Reiff Ellis is an Atlanta-based freelance writer and editor specializing in health and medicine. She is a regular writer for WebMD and Fortune Well, and her work has appeared in Prevention, Oprah Magazine, Women’s Health, and others.

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