Questioning authority

How often do people get jobs when they are the only applicant? Don't you think you should interview a few doctors when it comes to your life?

How often do people get jobs when they are the only applicant? Don’t you think you should interview a few doctors when it comes to your life?

I remember the professor discussing the Milgram Authority Experient in a college psychology class.  My professor happened to be Milgram’s brother; he told us about how in the 1960s his sibling developed a study to try to gain an understanding how the Holocaust could have happened. The study’s investigator, a man in a white coat, told the unsuspecting participants that they would be in the role of a “teacher” and ask the person on the other side of the glass (“the student”) a series of questions. They were told that each time the person gave an incorrect answer, they would deliver a shock using a shock generator. The shock levels started at 30 volts and increasing in 15-volt increments all the way up to 450 volts. The many switches were labeled with terms including “slight shock,” “moderate shock” and “danger: severe shock.” The final two switches were labeled simply with an ominous “XXX.”

Participants believed they were delivering real shocks to the student; the student was actually part of the research team whom was simply pretending to be shocked.

According to, “As the experiment progressed, the participant would hear the learner plead to be released or even complain about a heart condition. Once the 300-volt level had been reached, the learner banged on the wall and demanded to be released. Beyond this point, the learner became completely silent and refused to answer any more questions. The experimenter then instructed the participant to treat this silence as an incorrect response and deliver a further shock.”

Each time, the man in the white coat told the “teacher” he must continue. Unbelievably, 65 percent of the participants gave the maximum shock.

Why am I telling you about this? I think it’s a perfect example of why some patients do not question their doctors or go for a second opinion. Physicians are seen as authority figures, and patients are sometimes afraid of making doctors angry. They take on the role of the “good patient,” often endangering their own lives as a result. I’ve seen this happen to a couple of friends. Even as it was evident that a particular doctor was killing them with chemo, they were afraid to get a second opinion. I’ve heard stories of this doctor telling patients he would no longer see them if they didn’t follow his plan of action. Unfortunately, my friends didn’t seek another opinion until it was too late.

A while back I interviewed ePatient Dave deBronkart about the revolution in the making of empowered patients. More and more patients are helping their doctors and themselves by doing their own research, asking questions … basically becoming an important member of the medical team.

Steve Scott, a stage IV colon cancer survivor who is featured in From Incurable to Incredible, certainly took this to heart. Steve went to five different doctors who all told him he was going to die and there was nothing they could do. He finally found a physician at Memorial Sloan Kettering in NYC who said he would treat him. Steve has shown no evidence of disease for five years.

I realize everyone doesn’t have the financial means to travel to other cities or have insurance to get other opinions. That’s why organizations like The Pink Fund, which help with financial burdens by paying bills, is so important. But I know there are people who can afford it who simply refuse to go elsewhere. My view: this is your life. Isn’t it worth it to get the best care you can … and perhaps piss off your doctor? I basically said this to a women with whom I was matched by Imerman Angels, a wonderful organization founded by my friend Jonny Imerman (also featured in my book). I told her if her doctor got mad because she wanted to get a second opinion, then he wasn’t a very good doctor.

I always liked the expression, “Question Authority.” What are your thoughts?

Tami Boehmer is a metastatic breast cancer survivor, speaker, blogger and author of From Incurable to Incredible: Cancer Survivors Who Beat the Odds. You can visit her at

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