Steve Jobs lived ahead of his time. Tragically, that’s also how he died.
Jobs likely hastened it significantly by making medical choices with the same decision-making style that created the world’s most valuable company and its transformative products: He went against the grain and trusted no one’s instincts but his own.
His intuition-based decision-making process and consistent rejection of conventional thinking is why Jobs’ extraordinary life and career will be studied for decades. But sadly, perhaps a more universal lesson has nothing to do with Apple: Health care decisions are different from others. What matters when you find yourself seriously ill isn’t how smart, decisive, and accomplished you are in your chosen field. What matters is being smart enough to know that your judgment is compromised by emotions—and finding clarity through expert help.
Typically they develop an insatiable appetite for what might be called Google Medical School. They network with family, friends, support groups, and philanthropies. They consult with medical specialists and undergo batteries of diagnostic tests. This eventually leads to information overload and contradictory advice—not a good framework for making decisions. Unfortunately, most patients respond to this unbearable uncertainty by grouping along one of four paths, none of them optimal.
The first group religiously follows the advice of a single physician selected on the basis of stature or charisma, shutting out other guidance.
The second is countercultural, rejecting conventional medicine at a visceral level and embracing a wide array of alternative interventions, often unproven or untested. The third suffers from paralysis of analysis, in a futile search for certainty. And the fourth manages medical decisions like business decisions, trying to generate consensus but among experts unaccustomed to defending their recommendations and uncomfortable challenging others’.
There is a better way. In my experience supporting hundreds of patients through life-threatening health issues, I’ve found that it’s important for patients to acknowledge first that serious illness produces overwhelming stress that alters their ability to reason. And second, that the medical world operates differently from other professions. “When you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail” holds true for medical specialists, who tend to advocate for their specialties.
First, get an accurate and complete diagnosis. This sounds elementary, but bear in mind that interpreting biopsies and imaging studies can be subjective. Experts make errors.
Then find specialists with experience in your precise condition.
After getting an accurate, complete diagnosis and identifying the best specialists, the third, unconventional step patients should strongly consider is a daunting but differentiating one: orchestrating coordinated care among multiple physicians, specialists, and related support, such as nutritionists and psychologists.
You cannot take your medical problem as part of your professional expertise; you have to respect others’ expertise; you have to get very special help; and lastly, no sure bet after all these!