Imagine that a hundred people are prescribed a drug. Consider what happens next. One- third of them won’t fill the prescription. Half of the remaining sixty-seven will fill it, but won’t take the medication correctly. They’ll miss doses. They’ll quit taking it early. They might not even take it at all.
Physicians and pharmacists tend to blame such patients for their noncompliance, In action and error. You can lead a horse to water, they reason. Psychologists tend to take a dim view of such judgments. We are trained to assume that the failure of patients to follow professional advice is the fault of the practitioner, not the patient. We believe the health-care provider has a responsibility to profer advice that will be followed, offer interventions that will be respected, plan with the patient or client until the desired result is achieved, and follow up to ensure that everything is going correctly. This is just one of the many things that make psychologists so wonderful — :). Of course, we have the luxury of time with our clients, unlike other more beleaguered professionals, who wonder why sick people won’t take their medication. What’s wrong with them? Don’t they want to get better?
Here’s something worse. Imagine that someone receives an organ transplant. Imagine it’s a kidney. A transplant typically occurs only after a long period of anxious waiting on the part of the recipient. Only a minority of people donate organs when they die (and even fewer when they are still alive). Only a small number of donated organs are a good match for any hopeful recipient. This means that the typical kidney transplantee has been undergoing dialysis, the only alternative, for years. Dialysis involves passing all the patient’s blood out of his or her body, through a machine, and back in. It is an unlikely and miraculous treatment, so that’s all good, but it’s not pleasant. It must happen five to seven times a week, for eight hours a time. It should happen every time the patient sleeps. That’s too much. No one wants to stay on dialysis.
Now, one of the complications of transplantation is rejection. Your body does not like it when parts of someone else’s body are stitched into it. Your immune system will attack and destroy such foreign elements, even when they are crucial to your survival. To stop this from happening, you must take anti-rejection drugs, which weaken immunity, increasing your susceptibility to infectious disease. Most people are happy to accept the trade-off. Recipients of transplants still suffer the effects of organ rejection, despite the existence and utility of these drugs. It’s not because the drugs fail (although they sometimes do). It’s more often because those prescribed the drugs do not take them. This beggars belief. It is seriously not good to have your kidneys fail. Dialysis is no picnic. Transplantation surgery occurs after long waiting, at high risk and great expense. To lose all that because you don’t take your medication? How could people do that to themselves? How could this possibly be?
It’s complicated, to be fair. Many people who receive a transplanted organ are isolated, or beset by multiple physical health problems (to say nothing of problems associated with unemployment or family crisis). They may be cognitively impaired or depressed. They may not entirely trust their doctor, or understand the necessity of the medication. Maybe they can barely afford the drugs, and ration them, desperately and unproductively.
But—and this is the amazing thing—imagine that it isn’t you who feels sick. It’s your dog. So, you take him to the vet. The vet gives you a prescription. What happens then? You have just as many reasons to distrust a vet as a doctor. Furthermore, if you cared so little for your pet that you weren’t concerned with what improper, substandard or error- ridden prescription he might be given, you wouldn’t have taken him to the vet in the first place. Thus, you care. Your actions prove it. In fact, on average, you care more. People are better at filling and properly administering prescription medication to their pets than to themselves. That’s not good. Even from your pet’s perspective, it’s not good. Your pet (probably) loves you, and would be happier if you took your medication.
It is difficult to conclude anything from this set of facts except that people appear to love their dogs, cats, ferrets and birds (and maybe even their lizards) more than themselves. How horrible is that? How much shame must exist, for something like that to be true? What could it be about people that makes them prefer their pets to themselves?
It was an ancient story in the Book of Genesis—the first book in the Old Testament—that helped me find an answer to that perplexing question.