Elizabeth Ohene: Please doctor, my stomach

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I accept that medical doctors are special. I have a medical doctor brother who is special and I shall write about him one of these days.

Doctors are usually there at hand to help with your entry into the world, they are there throughout the childhood illness years and if you are lucky, they are there to ease the drama of your passing.

Indeed, since they are the ones that literally hold your life in their hands, it is not surprising that we all treat doctors with the reverence that they deserve. 

All that by way of saying I am choosing my words carefully in writing what might sound to some like a critique of medical practice.

We have certainly come a long way since the days of my youth when a visit to the doctor was sometimes more traumatic than the illness that took you there in the first place.

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I recall a particular trip to Ho hospital as a 15-year-old boarding school student.

As I sat in the chair in front of the doctor and started trying to tell him about the pain inside my left ear, he handed me a piece of paper on which he had squiggled something to take to the pharmacy.

I don’t think I was in that consulting room for more than two minutes.

Things have improved and doctors now do spend more time trying to hear your story and they are now able to conduct more tests.

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One area

The one area in which things do not seem to have changed very much is that the doctor still doesn’t think he needs to tell you what he believes to be the problem and what his diagnosis is after hearing your story and taking a look at the results of the tests he had ordered.

I am not quite sure if this is because the doctor thinks telling you about his findings would terrify you and lead to a panic, but we do have many doctors who would never tell the patient what they believe to be the problem.

I am making an honourable exception of my brother, Dr Sammy, who doesn’t have a doctor’s handwriting and writes clearly and legibly, but we don’t expect generally to be able to read whatever the doctor has written and we were even brought up to believe that medical reports were not meant to be read by non-medical people.

You are not allowed to read the folder that contains the reports written about you and what they are doing to you.

One would have thought that we have moved on from such practices. Now the doctors face new types of problems where everyone who enters the consulting room has come already armed with opinions from Dr Google and Dr WhatsApp.

We all now go on the internet to try and find out about every medical situation.

There is available on the net very detailed writeups on all medical conditions and admonitions on what to eat and not eat and what it means if I lie down on my back, or facedown, or on my left side or right side. 

We all now have information available on our phones that purport to answer all our medical problems and offer solutions to long-standing aches and pains.

In one fell swoop, matters that used to be the exclusive preserve of medical doctors have become things over which everyone now claims expert knowledge.

I can sympathise with the doctors feeling irritated by people coming to them with a diagnosis from Dr Google and Dr WhatsApp and wanting to prescribe what the treatment should be.

But it looks like not much has changed. Last Monday, Charles, a young man of my acquaintance went to see the doctor with a complaint of having pains in his stomach.

He is sent off to the lab for tests. He comes back with the test results and he is given a prescription to go and buy medication.

He is not told what the tests show or do not show, he is not told what the test was looking for and he is not told what the medicine is that he is to buy.

The pharmacist does mumble the usual: “one of this, three times daily, before meals and one of that, two times daily after meals” as the medication is handed over.

When the young man makes it back home, I ask him how the trip to the hospital went and what the doctor said was wrong with him.

He tells me the doctor didn’t say what was wrong but Charles thinks he has stomach ulcer.

How did he come to that conclusion? Because, according to him, one of the medications he was made to buy is used to treat heartburn and stomach ulcer and since it is his stomach that is hurting him, he has concluded he has stomach ulcer.

There is nothing new to this event I have just recounted, it is an everyday tale that occurs around Ghana and has been ongoing for years.


The idea of questioning a doctor does not come easily to most of us.

This might well be because of the traditional beliefs and practices we have about ill health and the medicine man and healer as a diviner, who gives you a mystery concoction that would cure your ailments.

We have childlike faith in anyone with a white coat who wears a stethoscope around his neck.

Then we have the added problem of our doctors having to see far too many patients because there aren’t enough of them.

Some of them in one week, attend to the number of patients their colleagues in some other parts of the world, would attend to in three months, or in a year.

It is probably not surprising therefore that they don’t have the time for small talk with each patient.

But how I wish the doctor in my story would tell Charles he is being treated for stomach ulcer or whatever the diagnosis is and maybe tell him something about diet, just so he can put it in some context with the pressures from the WhatsApp experts and his instinctive belief that it might be an aunt or unknown grandmother that is causing the pain and discomfort in his stomach.

Now, more than ever, the doctors need to talk to us.           

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