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Saturday, November 21, 2020

Addressing The Range of Patient Beliefs About COVID-19

by Lyle Fettig (@FettigLyle)

I’ve been thinking about my role as a physician in responding to skepticism about a range of COVID topics, especially as we approach the holidays and all the tension about difficult recommendations to forgo traditional Thanksgiving dinners. As I think about our current situation, I can’t help but recall an encounter I had with a patient many years ago.

In winter 2008 after President Obama was first elected, I saw a woman in clinic who said she was disappointed by the election result. She cited a jaw dropping falsehood about what she thought his election would mean for healthcare, and especially healthcare for white people. I was frankly shocked when she mentioned falsehood, as I had not heard her specific concern in the runup to the election. She had no history of psychosis or delusional thinking. We spent a while talking about her concerns, and why her healthcare was secure.

I remember thinking, "where did she get this from and how could she believe this?" The belief clearly had a racist element underpinning it. I felt powerless, as I couldn’t fix this person’s belief. But through a mixture of trust built on our relationship and exploring her underlying concerns, I think she ultimately listened to my reassurance that she would not lose her Medicare. And regardless of what she believed, it ultimately didn’t matter. The truth was the truth. Her Medicare coverage wasn’t changing, and this truth would bear out for her regardless of her belief.

Don't we have moments like this all the time, when patients bring up shocking beliefs/myths/etc about how the world works? Maybe not every day, but it happens a lot. People are not always well informed and have a mix of beliefs, born out of individual experiences, family background, and culture. “Groupthink” is a part of that culture.

When people bring up myths about their illness or healthcare itself, we usually deal with it one on one with the patient. We explore underlying concerns and try to address those concerns as best we can, either through communication or action.

Dr. Fauci said he was "stunned" that so many see the pandemic as "fake." I've also heard colleagues express disbelief about how lackadaisical many in the public are.

But if you've been practicing medicine for a while, haven't you had enough people individually bring up wild ideas about how the world works to say, "yeah, actually I'm not all that surprised." The piece that's hard is the group think, and that we have so little control over this groupthink, right here in front of us. So while I’m having a bit of disbelief, it isn't the main feeling I've been having. The main response is a bit of helplessness.

I feel helpless in the face of so many who aren't taking this seriously, and I'd guess many of you do, too. The only way forward for most of us is one patient at a time. Sure, those who have a megaphone should continue to blast accurate and understandable public health messages. It's really important. The rest of us can amplify these messages.

Just remember that you've been here before with patients' mistaken beliefs. One on one with patients and their families is where healthcare professionals have our greatest agency. We have the ability to understand explanatory models, motivations, and concerns.

None of us would dispute that public health oriented restrictions come with hardships for many. When patients (or loved ones) express skepticism about public health guidance, resist the inclination to reinforce what you know to be true. By now, they have heard it all before! Explore how following public health guidance might be impacting their life in other ways (social isolation, loss of income, etc). This is what the restrictions actually mean for most people. This is harder to accomplish on social media or with family and friends, but you could give it a try there, too.

Explore how they are talking about coronavirus and the restrictions with others around them. You'll hear about the groupthink. To go against the grain of one's in-group feels like a threat to their identity (even if the vast majority of the time, it isn’t a threat in that way). You will also hear a great deal about how families and friends are working together to overcome the conflicts that are inherent to trying to navigate these difficult times. Celebrate the work they are doing to do this when this happens! I’m definitely seeing this a fair amount in our palliative care clinic with our seriously ill patients and their families, who remain highly motivated to stay away from COVID. People have been very creative, having drive-by birthday celebrations at homes, etc.

IF you can figure out how public health guidance impacts a person in potentially negative ways, then you can acknowledge that (and sometimes work to mitigate with help of social workers, etc). And then they may be more open to hearing you speak the truth about prevention.

Don't expect them to change their mind instantly. Most of the impact of health care professional/patient communication comes after a visit, and they may never tell you that you helped change their mind. As with all other healthcare, "They don't care how much you know until they know how much you care." This maxim remains true with pandemic communication. If you’ve spoken your mind with compassion and respect, you’ve done your job, even if you can’t ultimately control what they do.

The pandemic has “stretched” my ability to separate what I can and can’t control. As we head into what looks like a dark winter, I hope we can all continue to find the light of our souls: Our ability to foster genuine human connection in the hardest of times.

P.S. Yes at the beginning of the pandemic I said we were going to war with coronavirus (see previous post). Do I regret it? Yes and no. If I didn’t sorta regret it, I probably wouldn’t be bringing it up right now, as I might be the only person who actually remembers this. I don’t like battle metaphors, I avoid them in practice unless patients bring them up. And I don’t want to be at war. So consider this post a bit of penance for “going there.” But I’ll admit to having mixed feelings about many different metaphors, even including battle metaphors. I think the downsides of battle metaphors mostly outweigh the upsides, but I can’t help to still think of it when it comes to the virus. So I’ll continue to wrestle with it, and accept non-violently any judgement silently cast by those who read my previous post. I get where you’re coming from, trust me. :)

Dr. Lyle Fettig is an Assistant Professor of Clinical Medicine in the Department of Medicine/Division of General Internal Medicine and Geriatrics. Dr. Fettig directs the IUSM Palliative Medicine Fellowship and works clinically with the Eskenazi Health Palliative Care Program.

Note - this post originated from a thread by Lyle Fettig on Twitter.

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