If Your Doctor Can't Say These 3 Words, You Need a New One ASAP

Leading health experts agree that it's time to find a new doctor if you encounter this one red flag.

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There are plenty of reasons you might be dissatisfied with your doctor. Maybe their people skills aren't quite up to snuff, maybe they tell really bad jokes, or maybe they're the type that leaves you sitting in the waiting room for entirely too long every time you go visit. All of those concerns are valid, but if you encounter one red flag in particular, leading health experts agree that it's time to find a new doctor ASAP. So, what's the tell-tale sign you need a new MD? Your doctor is incapable of saying, "I don't know." Read on for more on why these three words are so important, and for other red flags, here are 23 Signs You Need a New Doctor, According to Actual Doctors.

"'I don't know' are the three most important [words] in medicine," Matt Morgan, PhD, an ICU research lead at University Hospital Wales, wrote in a recent paper for the British Medical Journal. Morgan's own turning point came after seeing a young man in his care die of sepsis and being unable to explain to his family why it had happened. "All medical encounters revolve around things we don't know," Morgan explains. "Patients and families often challenge us to predict the future, asking, 'Will she survive?' or, 'When can I go home?' Like the best meteorologists we must integrate science, history, and our gut instinct to make a stab at an elusive possibility that we hope clings to a truth." Morgan compares his own position to that of a weather forecaster—grounded in science, guided by past performance and patterns, but ultimately open to the possibility that things change and when they do, your doctor needs to be able to be flexible.

Doctor talking to senior male patient in a home visit
iStock

And it's not just medical professionals who feel this way. When a similar question about red flags from your doctor was posed on Reddit, the top rated answer of 3,100 responses was similar. "Medicine is insanely complex, and a good physician should always be using resources as a refresher and to keep themselves up to date," user @jwilty wrote. "If you show up to your doctor's office with new complaints, don't always expect an answer/solution immediately unless your problem is really straightforward. Part of this may be the need for labs/imaging, but part is just giving the physician time to digest what you told them and plan what to do about it. Saying 'I don't know' doesn't make them incompetent, but just the reverse. At least they know when they are out of their league or are being careful with your health. If they always know the answer, and especially if they are defensive with any questions, they are probably trying to hide their incompetence."

Part of the reason some doctors struggle with this is a generalized culture in medicine that's opposed to admitting mistakes. "The culture of medicine frowns on admitting mistakes, usually on the pretense of fear of malpractice lawsuits," Lawrence Shlacter, MD, wrote for the medical news site Stat. "What is a patient to do in this environment? The first thing is to be aware of your own predisposition to take everything your doctor says at face value. Listen closely and you may hear cause for more intense questioning."

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In fact, the nation's leading immunologist, Anthony Fauci, MD, has expressed a similar idea. Fauci recently shared his biggest takeaways from the COVID-19 pandemic during a Grand Rounds session with Harvard Medical School on Sept. 10. "We've really got to realize that, from day one, you don't know it all," he said. "And you've got to be flexible enough to change your recommendations, your guidelines, your policies, depending upon the information and the data as it evolves. If you look at what we knew in February compared to what we know now [about COVID-19], there really are a lot of differences. The role of masks, the role of aerosol, the role of indoor vs. outdoors, closed spaces. You've just got to be humble enough to realize that we don't know it all from the get-go and even as we get into it."

So remember that your doctors are fallible and still learning, and if they can admit that, then that's a very positive sign. And for more on what you should be able to talk to your MD about, here are 20 Questions to Ask Your Doctor Once a Year.

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John Quinn
John Quinn is a London-based writer and editor who specializes in lifestyle topics. Read more
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