Published: 09 November 2022

Why every doctor needs to be a bit of a psychologist

Professor of Health Psychology, Jane Ogden, shares the importance of psychological knowledge when making a medical diagnosis.  

Understanding the mind as an essential element of treating the body 

One of the pivotal developments in medicine in recent decades has been our ability to gather and use data for diagnosis and to inform therapeutic decisions. Knowing that a certain drug, operation or screening procedure or even change of lifestyle is effective is incredibly powerful. 

But even knowing that doesn’t guarantee that the treatment will work. The reason? Humans get in the way. This happens for all sorts of reasons, for example they may be unwilling or unable to follow a treatment regime.  

This doesn’t just apply to complex courses of medication or therapy. Even a single daily medication might be too much. Some people don’t turn up for an appointment, some dislike taking tablets, some don’t appreciate the importance of sticking to a regime. Some simply forget!  

From the doctor’s perspective, these are exactly the kind of issues that feed into effective clinical decision-making. Every intervention needs to be tailored to human factors. Can the patient comply? Will the patient comply? If not, what are the alternatives – and if there are none, what can we do to support the patient? 

Psychological training is vital for doctors to help support shared decision-making with patients and to ensure that doctors consider management options including patients’ lifestyles and motivations holistically to achieve the best results. Such training shapes communication skills to support discussions around treatment plans clearly to patients, carers and all members of the wider clinical team.  

Psychological knowledge is equally important for diagnosis. Increasingly, patients have multiple sources of ‘medical’ information available to them – from social media scaremongering to the scores of online symptom checkers. Frequently, patients arrive having diagnosed themselves online and even adjust the symptoms they describe to align with what they have read to get their ‘preferred’ treatment. Spotting this early can help doctors diagnose more accurately, but this requires nuanced communication. 

It comes down to the fact that good doctors see and treat the whole person – with all the complexities and inconsistencies that involves. That’s why we believe it is so valuable that psychology will be part of a medicine degree at the University of Surrey.

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