4 questions you should always ask your doctor | Christer Mjåset


I am a neurosurgeon, and I’m here to tell you today
that people like me need your help. And in a few moments, I will tell you how. But first, let me start off by telling you
about a patient of mine. This was a woman in her 50s, she was in generally good shape, but she had been in and out
of hospital a few times due to curative breast cancer treatment. Now she had gotten a prolapse
from a cervical disc, giving her radiating pain of a tense kind, out into the right arm. Looking at her MRI
before the consultation, I decided to suggest an operation. Now, neck operations like these
are standardized, and they’re quick. But they carry a certain risk. You make an incision right here, and you dissect carefully
past the trachea, the esophagus, and you try not to cut
into the internal carotid artery. (Laughter) Then you bring in the microscope, and you carefully remove
the disc and the prolapse in the nerve root canal, without damaging the cord
and the nerve root lying only millimeters underneath. The worst case scenario
is the damage to the cord, which can result in paralysis
from the neck down. Explaining this to the patient,
she fell silent. And after a few moments, she uttered a few very decisive words
for me and for her. “Doctor, is this really necessary?” (Laughter) And you know what I realized,
right there and then? It was not. In fact, when I get patients
like this woman, I tend to advise not to operate. So what made me do it this time? Well, you see, this prolapse was so delicate, I could practically see myself
pulling it out of the nerve root canal before she entered the consultation room. I have to admit it,
I wanted to operate on her. I’d love to operate on her. Operating, after all,
is the most fun part of my job. (Laughter) I think you can relate to this feeling. My architect neighbor says
he loves to just sit and draw and design houses. He’d rather do that all day than talk to the client
paying for the house that might even give him
restrictions on what to do. But like every architect, every surgeon needs
to look their patient in the eye and together with the patient, they need to decide on what is best
for the person having the operation. And that might sound easy. But let’s look at some statistics. The tonsils are the two lumps
in the back of your throat. They can be removed surgically, and that’s called a tonsillectomy. This chart shows the operation rate
of tonsillectomies in Norway in different regions. What might strike you
is that there is twice the chance that your kid —
because this is for children — will get a tonsillectomy in Finnmark
than in Trondheim. The indications
in both regions are the same. There should be
no difference, but there is. Here’s another chart. The meniscus helps stabilize the knee and can be torn or fragmented acutely, topically during sports like soccer. What you see here is the operation rate
for this condition. And you see that the operation
rate in Møre og Romsdal is five times the operation
rate in Stavanger. Five times. How can this be? Did the soccer players in Møre og Romsdal play more dirty
than elsewhere in the country? (Laughter) Probably not. I added some information now. What you see now
is the procedures performed in public hospitals, in light blue, the ones in private clinics
are light green. There is a lot of activity
in the private clinics in Møre og Romsdal, isn’t there? What does this indicate? A possible economic motivation
to treat the patients. And there’s more. Recent research has shown
that the difference of treatment effect between regular physical therapy
and operations for the knee — there is no difference. Meaning that most
of the procedures performed on the chart I’ve just shown could have been avoided,
even in Stavanger. So what am I trying to tell you here? Even though most indications
for treatments in the world are standardized, there is a lot of unnecessary variation
of treatment decisions, especially in the Western world. Some people are not getting
the treatment that they need, but an even greater portion of you are being overtreated. “Doctor, is this really necessary?” I’ve only heard that question
once in my career. My colleagues say they never heard
these words from a patient. And to turn it the other way around, how often do you think
you’ll get a “no” from a doctor if you ask such a question? Researchers have investigated this, and they come up
with about the same “no” rate wherever they go. And that is 30 percent. Meaning, three out of 10 times, your doctor prescribes
or suggests something that is completely unnecessary. And you know what they claim
the reason for this is? Patient pressure. In other words, you. You want something to be done. A friend of mine came to me
for medical advice. This is a sporty guy, he does a lot of cross-country skiing
in the winter time, he runs in the summer time. And this time, he’d gotten a bad back ache
whenever he went jogging. So much that he had to stop doing it. I did an examination,
I questioned him thoroughly, and what I found out is
that he probably had a degenerated disc in the lower part of his spine. Whenever it got strained, it hurt. He’d already taken up
swimming instead of jogging, there was really nothing to do, so I told him, “You need
to be more selective when it comes to training. Some activities are good for you, some are not.” His reply was, “I want an MRI of my back.” “Why do you want an MRI?” “I can get it for free
through my insurance at work.” “Come on,” I said —
he was also, after all, my friend. “That’s not the real reason.” “Well, I think it’s going to be good
to see how bad it looks back there.” “When did you start interpreting
MRI scans?” I said. (Laughter) “Trust me on this. You’re not going to need the scan.” “Well,” he said, and after a while, he continued,
“It could be cancer.” (Laughter) He got the scan, obviously. And through his insurance at work, he got to see one
of my colleagues at work, telling him about the degenerated disc, that there was nothing to do, and that he should keep on swimming
and quit the jogging. After a while,
I met him again and he said, “At least now I know what this is.” But let me ask you a question. What if all of you in this room
with the same symptoms had an MRI? And what if all the people in Norway had an MRI due to occasional back pain? The waiting list for an MRI
would quadruple, maybe even more. And you would all take
the spot on that list from someone who really had cancer. So a good doctor sometimes says no, but the sensible patient
also turns down, sometimes, an opportunity
to get diagnosed or treated. “Doctor, is this really necessary?” I know this can be
a difficult question to ask. In fact, if you go back 50 years, this was even considered rude. (Laughter) If the doctor had decided
what to do with you, that’s what you did. A colleague of mine,
now a general practitioner, was sent away to a tuberculosis
sanatorium as a little girl, for six months. It was a terrible trauma for her. She later found out, as a grown-up, that her tests on tuberculosis
had been negative all along. The doctor had sent her away
on nothing but wrong suspicion. No one had dared or even considered
confronting him about it. Not even her parents. Today, the Norwegian health minister talks about the patient
health care service. The patient is supposed to get advice
from the doctor about what to do. This is great progress. But it also puts more
responsibility on you. You need to get in the front seat
with your doctor and start sharing
decisions on where to go. So, the next time
you’re in a doctor’s office, I want you to ask, “Doctor, is this really necessary?” And in my female patient’s case, the answer would be no, but an operation could also be justified. “So doctors, what are the risks
attached to this operation?” Well, five to ten percent of patients
will have worsening of pain symptoms. One to two percent of patients will have an infection in the wound
or even a rehemorrhage that might end up in a re-operation. 0.5 percent of patients
also experience permanent hoarseness and a few, but still a few, will experience reduced function
in the arms or even legs. “Doctor, are there other options?” Yes, rest and physical therapy
over some time might get you perfectly well. “And what happens if I don’t do anything?” It’s not recommended, but even then, there’s a slight chance
that you will get well. Four questions. Simple questions. Consider them your new toolbox to help us. Is this really necessary? What are the risks? Are there other options? And what happens if I don’t do anything? Ask them when your doctor
wants to send you to an MRI, when he prescribes antibiotics or suggests an operation. What we know from research is that one out of five
of you, 20 percent, will change your opinion on what to do. And by doing that, you will
not only have made your life a whole lot easier,
and probably even better, but the whole health care sector will have benefited from your decision. Thank you. (Applause)

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