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How to Avoid Being a Brainsucker

Even before advocacy began to coalesce as a profession, back when “patient empowerment” was still a very new concept, when most medical professionals went about their business of telling patients what to do, knowing those patients would snap their heals, salute, and do it! …

It was 2007, which I’ll remind you was also pre-healthcare reform in the US… even before Barack Obama was elected, not yet the author of Obamacare. Google had been around for a few years by then, and patients were learning how to do web searches to learn about diagnoses, treatments, providers, medical research, and more.

Back in those days there was a doctor named Scott Haig who DARED call a patient who had googled him a “brainsucker.” He did so very publicly – in Time Magazine – in a disdainful tirade where he made it clear how absolutely SUPERIOR he was to all patients, and to a particular patient, named Susan. (This is when you were expected to kiss his feet.)

However, the fallout that followed among Time readers became a real wake-up call to providers everywhere, with a loud and clear message: Dr. Google is here to stay!  And you’d better figure out how to cope with it, dammit!

Soon after, advocacy as a profession began to take root, in parallel with the implementation of the ACA (Obamacare). Along with that came a lot more googling — a lot more research, many more questions, and a downhill runaway train of frustration on the parts of patients who weren’t (aren’t) getting what they needed from the healthcare system, despite the excessive money flowing from their pockets, further exacerbated by frustrated medical professionals everywhere who have had to figure out how to complain about patients without insulting them to the extent Scott Haig had.

Some doctors are really good at hiding their frustration and disdain. Others, not so much. As time has marched on, the system has become increasingly frustrating for providers AND patients.

To me, it’s a matter of making sure we foster respect among all participants.

So, as advocates, how do we make sure our clients get their questions asked and answered while maintaining an air of RESPECT among the doctor, the patient-client, and us, too? Patients, in particular, don’t want to upset their doctors (see: The Waiter Will Spit in My Soup Syndrome.) The last thing we want to do is upset the balance of the patient – doctor – advocate triumvirate.

I actually think the answer is quite simple, although it might take some practice.

That is: Avoid statements. Ask questions instead, doing so in a respectful way to get the information you want and need, without the unspoken attitude of “Hey, Doc. I know you’ve spent 12 years in medical school, and have practiced for decades, but I know more than you because I spent an hour on the web!”


  • Don’t say, “When I looked this up online, I learned about ____ which sounds like a better option.” Instead say, “I learned about ___ online. Can you tell me why it’s not the choice you are recommending?” 
  • Don’t say, “I read about that drug and I don’t want to take it.”  Instead say, “I read some information about that drug that makes me want to avoid it. Can you make another suggestion?”
  • Don’t say, “I looked at the symptoms for____ online, but they don’t fit, so I don’t think that’s correct.” Instead say, “I looked at the symptoms of ___ online, but I’m also experiencing ___, so can you tell me how to account for this extra symptom in the diagnosis?  (or, in the other direction) … but I do not have __(this symptom)__ so can you explain why you still believe I have ____?”

Asking questions allows us to be respectful, and command respect in return. Asking will elicit much better responses than making brainsucking statements that serve instead to put everyone on edge.

We are all stuck with this system for now. We need to learn to get along, to show, and to command respect. “Ask. Don’t Tell” is a good start.


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1 thought on “How to Avoid Being a Brainsucker”

  1. This is an excellent approach to tap to stay professional not only in the physician-patient-advocate triangle but also in the client-advocate relationship when the client takes an action — not in his best interests–that thwarts the advocate’s efforts at building the best-possible care team and treatment plan for him. Questions to the client may elicit responses that indicate why the client “went rogue.”

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