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,” said 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,” said Teresa Lovins, MD, a physician in private practice Columbus, Ind., 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,” said Dr. 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,” said Russell Blackwelder, MD, director of geriatric education and associate professor of family medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston.

“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.”

Dr. Lovins agreed 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 said. “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.”


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