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Doctor-patient relationship

The doctor-patient relationship and interaction is a central process in the practice of medicine. There are many perspectives from which to understand and describe it.

An idealized physician's perspective, such as is taught in medical school, sees the core aspects of the process as the physician learning from the patient his symptoms, concerns and values; in response the physician examines the patient, interprets the symptoms, and formulates a diagnosis to explain the symptoms and their cause to the patient and to propose a treatment. In more detail, the patient presents a set of complaints or concerns about his health to the doctor, who then obtains further information about the patient's symptoms, previous state of health, living conditions, and so forth, and then formulates a diagnosis and enlists the patient's agreement to a treatment plan. Importantly, during this process the doctor educates the patient about the causes, progression, outcomes, and possible treatments of his ailments, as well as often providing advice for maintaining health. This teaching relationship is the basis of calling the physician doctor, which originally meant "teacher" in Latin. The patient-doctor relationship is additionally complicated by the patient's suffering (patient derives from the Latin patiens, "suffering") and limited ability to relieve it on his own. The doctor's expertise comes from his knowledge about, or experience with, other people who have suffered similar symptoms, and his presumed ability to relieve it with medicines or other therapies about which the patient may initially have little knowledge.

The doctor-patient relationship can be analyzed from the perspective of ethical concerns, in terms of how well the goals of non-maleficence, beneficence, autonomy, and justice are achieved. Many other values and ethical issues can be added to these. In different societies, periods, and cultures, different values may be assigned different priorities. For example, in the last 30 years medical care in the Western World has increasingly emphasized patient autonomy in decision making.

The relationship and process can also be analyzed in terms of social power relationships (e.g., by Michel Foucault), or economic transactions. Physicians have been accorded gradually higher status and respect over the last century, and they have been entrusted with control of access to prescription medicines as a public health measure. This represents a concentration of power and carries both advantages and disadvantages to particular kinds of patients with particular kinds of conditions. A further twist has occurred in the last 25 years as costs of medical care have risen, and a third party (an insurance company or government agency) now often insists upon a share of decision-making power for a variety of reasons, reducing freedom of choice of both doctors and patients in many ways.

The quality of the patient-doctor relationship is important to both parties. The better the relationship in terms of mutual respect, knowledge, trust, shared values and perspectives about disease and life, and time available, the better will be the amount and quality of information about the patient's disease transferred in both directions, enhancing accuracy of diagnosis and increasing the patient's knowledge about the disease.

In some settings, e.g. the hospital ward, the patient-doctor relationship is much more complex, and many other people are involved when somebody is ill: relatives, neighbors, rescue specialists, nurses, technical personnel, social workers and others.

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