Tips for dispelling common healthcare misconceptions

By Kristen Fuller, MD
Published March 1, 2024

Key Takeaways

I was on the phone with my mother who was furious because she needed to refill her thyroid medication, Synthroid, and her doctor wanted to prescribe her a generic. She was convinced it wouldn’t be as good. “It’s the cheap version,” she complained.

I chuckled, explaining to her (not for the first time) that Synthroid is the same as levothyroxine sodium. I described how the pharmaceutical company responsible for the brand-name product spent a lot of money bringing it to market, which is why the price is so high, and that the generic’s cheaper price tag doesn’t mean it’s an inferior product. 

This is one of the common misconceptions that we, as physicians, can dispel to improve our patients’ overall healthcare experience.

‘Generic means worse’

Most of us were born and raised to believe brand names are better. That’s why many patients are apt to assign superiority to brand-name drugs over generics. It’s up to you to dispel this misconception, especially if the brand-name version is cost-prohibitive to your patient.

During medical school, we were taught generic names of drugs, and most likely used them throughout residency. It’s when we entered the “real world” that we were exposed to brand names. 

Share your knowledge with your patients, and tell them the generic is the exact same medication as the brand-name drug, it just costs less—now explain why. I make sure to tell them that the brand-name drug was developed first, and the generic came after. The lower cost results from being able to bypass the marketing and drug trials (not to mention securing the patent) needed by the original brand-name version.

"I will even tell them that I, personally, opt for generic medications when available, both OTC and prescription."

Kristen Fuller, MD

If your patients want to know more about generics, you can share this helpful resource from the FDA.

‘Medication is always the answer’

When patients go to the doctor, they expect to leave with a prescription—the pharmaceutical industry does a great job of telling people that most diseases and disorders can be treated with drugs.

This, of course, isn’t true when it comes to things like viral illnesses, so it’s important to explain why antibiotics are not the answer. Not only will antibiotics be useless against a viral infection, they can wipe out healthy microflora in the gut, and the more antibiotics we take, the less likely they will work in the future. However tedious, it can also be helpful to educate patients on the differences between bacterial and viral infections, including the different signs and symptoms. 

‘Symptom management is the same as a cure’

Often, patients believe that their recently prescribed drug will cure them of their illness, not realizing that there are many diseases for which no cure exists. They may not understand that we are prescribing them a drug that will only help manage symptoms. This is especially true in mental health treatment.

When we diagnose a patient with depression and initiate a treatment plan that includes antidepressants such as SSRIs, it is important to explain the difference between symptom management and cure. There is no “cure” for depression; however, symptoms can be appropriately managed with the right treatment plan.

This same conversation holds true for a host of other disorders—all of which are fairly obvious to us, but not your patients—such as dementia, chronic pain, PCOS, certain genetic disorders, and so on.

‘Having a lot of sexual partners is bad/unhealthy’

We know that many patients are hesitant about being honest with their doctor, fearing judgment. But shame-based messaging prevents many from advocating for their own healthcare.[]

That’s why it’s essential we educate our patients about safe sex practices without focusing on the number of sex partners. Someone can get an STI from their monogamous partner, just as a sex worker can get an STI from one of their many partners.

Instead of stigmatizing a robust sex life, we need to talk about safe practices, treatment, and pleasure in a positive light. Ask questions like, "Are you happy with you sex life?" and "Do you have any questions for me about your sexual health?"

‘Vaccines only protect me, not others’

A hot topic in light of the pandemic, it is essential to enlighten patients on how vaccines help protect the people in their social circle and wider community.

I always tell my patients, “You are a healthy young adult, and you are likely not at risk of dying or being hospitalized from the flu. However, if you give the flu to your elderly grandfather or your friend’s newborn baby, you may be putting their life at risk.” 

‘You can stop antibiotics when you feel better’

From a patient’s perspective, it makes sense that if they feel better, why bother finishing their antibiotic prescription?

Patients are not well-versed in infectious disease and pharmacology, so it is our job to explain why continuing the full dose of antibiotics is essential, regardless of how great they may feel after the second day. We should educate them on the risk of reinfection and potential future drug resistance.

Parting thoughts

There are many other misconceptions you’ll encounter in the exam room—find satisfaction in successfully dispelling these falsities, as it can only improve your patient’s healthcare outcomes.

Unfortunately, as you well know, not everyone is willing to listen. While sometimes it feels like no matter how hard you try, your patient cannot be convinced their belief is wrong—don’t get discouraged. Even just slightly adjusting a stalwart’s viewpoint can be counted as a win. 

Each week in our "Real Talk" series, mental health advocate Kristen Fuller, MD, shares straight talk about situations that affect the mental and emotional health of today's healthcare providers. Each column offers key insights to help you navigate these challenging experiences. We invite you to submit a topic you'd like to see covered.

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