Throughout life there are numerous things we all have to do that we may hate or are just plain scared of doing: annual taxes, choosing paint colours for our house, public speaking, and seeing our doctor.
Going to see a doctor can be a nerve-wracking experience. For small things, it may just be an inconvenience to take time off work and the frustration of parking. But for more serious problems, like managing a chronic illness or getting a diagnosis for that lump on your body, it can create a range of feelings from fear to depression to anxiety, and even denial.
On top of that, many of us will wonder whether the doctor will listen or understand, or if we can properly describe what we’re feeling. How many of us have had an ache or pain, or skin rash that appears to have gone away by the time we see the doctor? You get worried the doctor won’t believe you and feel like you have to try to convince the him/her there really is a problem.
I sometimes get palpitations when I exercise. Not every time I exercise, and I certainly don’t get them when I’m sitting in my doctor’s office, all of which makes it hard to figure out what’s going on. Even if it’s not us, we probably know someone who spent months or even years in discomfort not knowing the cause and doctors being unable to help. Some health issues are hard to uncover, while other times, as patients, you come away wondering if the doctor really listened to you.
If you’re like me, you usually go to the doctor prepared with questions, have (over-)analyzed the situation, done some research yourself and maybe even talked to others about it. Although I stay away from doing too much Internet searching for things I don’t have any knowledge. Sometimes Googling that rash on the skin can lead to websites of rare, incurable diseases with amputation the only course of action.
When I see a doctor I know, my information tends to be helpful, but when I see a new doctor, I sometimes sense my questions and self-diagnosis seems to be giving them more information than they want. It makes me wonder that if I, with a background in healthcare, feel hesitation and anxiety with doctors’ visits, how must other patients feel?
In my research, I hear a lot of talk about the engaged and informed patient. From a health organization point of view this is great; well-informed and engaged patients are better able to manage their conditions and need less care. Yet, many doctors are uncomfortable with these patients. They see them as know-it-alls who may question or challenge their knowledge and authority, and as a result, these patients can end up being labelled a troublemaker.
No one wants to be a troublemaker, we just want to know what’s going on and what we can do. If we start to feel we’re bothering the doctor, we may cut short our questions or not talk as much. That might make the doctor happy but when most of the information a doctor needs to make an informed diagnosis or treatment plan comes from what the patient says, having a patient who feels uncomfortable to talk can make for poor care.
But not all patients are able to, or have the personality to be their own advocates. And let’s face it, most of us know more about how our car runs than how our body works, which is perfectly okay as we look to the doctors to be the expert. My grandma was one of these patients. She saw her doctor for dizzy spells and came back to tell us that she also had pain in her ear, although she didn’t tell the doctor that. When asked why she didn’t, her response was that the doctor should know. Of course her doctor didn’t know, but he should be able to get his patients to feel comfortable to say what’s going on.
This is not to say that doctors are inherently bad or don’t want to help us. There are a lot of great doctors out there, but there are also bad ones, just like in any profession. At the end of the day, doctors are human with the same challenges of daily life as us, as a result, they can also be prone to making mistakes. The problem when dealing with health, is the consequence of a mistake can be quite devastating.
Over the years working with both patients and doctors, as well as my more recent personal experience, I’ve found some of the following things helpful:
Write questions down: I commonly tell patients to write down their thoughts and questions before going an appointment. Sometimes we’re anxious and may forget things. In addition, the appointment times can be quite short, so writing your thoughts down can help. You don’t even have to read it out if you don’t want, but hand it to the doctor to read (I did this when I had a severe throat infection). Include your current medications and supplements (include dosages) in your note. One should ideally carry a list of medications on them at all time.
Bringing a family member or close friend: Having someone there with you can help be your advocate ensuring you get your concerns mentioned as well as be a second set of ears. This only works if you spend time talking to the person before the appointment in terms of what your concerns, questions and thoughts are. And of course, you need to have a good relationship with that person. I know of many times when a doctor has had to ask a patient’s partner to leave the room because the patient and partner start airing their domestic grievances during the appointment.
Take notes: Do something like take notes, or record the appointment so you can later remember what was said. This is another good reason to bring someone in with you as it may be hard to take notes while discussing with the doctor. Also, ask the doctor for any copies of test results you may have done, and have them explained.
Know your medication allergies: A few months back I was in the ER to get intravenous antibiotics for a severe throat infection. On the first day I told the ER doctor my allergies (and I assumed he wrote them down) and on the second day when I had to go back, a different ER doctor gave me a prescription for an antibiotic that I was allergic to. I noticed the mistake and the doctor corrected it.
Talk to family and friends: There is something about sharing that helps us feel better. It isn’t something that comes easy for all of us but it does help. In addition, others may have had similar experiences and helpful advice. When I had shingles 15 years ago, I was amazed at how many other people I know who had it previously. This allowed me to get a better understanding what to expect than what the doctor told me.