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Seeking: Modest Health Care Professionals

Modesty is sometimes an undervalued characteristic in people and health care professionals in particular. When I was a child, it was confidence and authority that you sought in a doctor. You wanted someone who had the answers, or at least pretended to know definitively what to do.

I was always skeptical. It probably started with the fact that it took a year to diagnose my rheumatoid arthritis. We saw a bunch of doctors who were confident and told my parents authoritatively that there was either nothing wrong with me or that it was all in my head (which would make me a talented and imaginative two-year-old!). Obviously, my swollen and painful joints did not agree with this assessment.

As I have progressed in my journey with rheumatoid arthritis, I have come to believe that no one has the answers. There are no cures or even easy treatments. It’s an uncertain road with no signs, GPS, or even a map to guide the way.

So my guiding principle when I meet new doctors is to seek modesty. Sure, I want to work with people who know about rheumatoid arthritis and the potential complications that may accompany the disease or its treatments. But I also want people who will acknowledge that they don’t in fact have the answers, that we are all just trying to do the best with limited information.

Perhaps the best example is an experience I had several years ago when I had swelling, weakness, and new, different pain in my knee. I immediately had a fear that ultimately proved true. But first I needed to consult with a new orthopedist to see if we could figure out this problem.

I had a couple meetings with the new orthopedist and he did a special scan on my knee. When my husband and I gathered in his office, he explained that he thought my knee (which had been replaced with an artificial joint in my teen years about 20 years ago) was infected and needed immediate surgery. What I did not expect was that he believed he was not the best man for the job, that his specialty was shoulders.
The orthopedist referred me to a different doctor with expertise in knee replacements, including a prestigious fellowship. I was totally shocked to have such a humble doctor, but very much appreciated his modest honesty. He was looking out for me and wanted me to have the best possible outcome during a serious health situation. Instead of concern about his own career, and even income, he put his patient first.
The surgeon he referred me to was excellent and did a great job on a very difficult case, involving removing my knee, inserting a temporary spacer, treating my infection for two months, and only then completing a knee replacement revision. It was complex, long, and required the best kind of doctor with solid, specialized experience.

Although I did not use the first doctor, we never forgot him and still appreciate the great referral he made. In fact, a couple years later my husband had shoulder trouble and we knew right where to go. During his visit, my husband thanked the orthopedist again for what he did for me and updated him on how I was doing. I think the doctor really appreciated hearing those words and seeing how much modesty can play an important role in being a quality health care provider.

During my many years of living with rheumatoid arthritis, I have met all sorts of doctors with a variety of approaches. But it will always stick in my memory about how honesty and modesty played a role in making sure I got the best care possible.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.


  • Lawrence 'rick' Phillips moderator
    3 years ago

    I recently had a broken ankle. I was referred to a doctor and he was ready to operate the next day on an emergency basis. He felt it was necessary to move fast to promote healing and long term complications which he painted as potentially dire.

    I told him I was reluctant so he insisted I schedule the surgery for 6 days hence and I left the office concerned about the speed.

    I called my regular orthopedic doctor and he disagreed. He felt a brace and time would heal the break. I went with the nonsurgical solution and it has paid off so far. 4 weeks later the break is mostly healed and my ankle works like a charm.

    The difference was purely one of comfort. My regular doctor asked how I wanted to proceed. This doctor is not afraid to operate (he replaced my hip in 2012), but he only wants to do so as a last resort. He gave me my options suggested a course of action and left the decision to me.

    I insist on being part of the decision not the result of it.

  • Kelly Mack moderator author
    3 years ago

    Hi Rick, your story is a terrific example of patient empowerment. It is our bodies, so we must make the decisions. We need solid advice and knowledge from doctors to make informed decisions, but since we ultimately live with the consequences we have to be comfortable with the choice. Thanks so much for sharing! Best, Kelly

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