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Mistakes People Make With Doctors

David Spero

October 1, 2008

I just finished reading the responses to one of Jan’s recent blog entries ("Blowing My Top [If Not My Chai Latte]") about the criminal lack of communication some health-care providers give patients and families. It seems that many doctors do not give patients even basic information, or tell us how to get it.

So how can we protect ourselves and get the care and information we need? Even the best doctors and other professionals need us to be fully active and involved in our treatment. And many doctors (as the comments on Jan’s entry show) are not all that good, requiring us to be even more active.

What Can We Do?
Here are some common mistakes people make with their doctors. I’ll give some ideas on how to avoid them, and I hope you will contribute your own ideas.

  • Assuming doctors can read your mind. They can’t. Usually, they have no clue about what is going on with you beyond your lab results. So you have to tell them. In response to my blog entry “Speaking Up for Myself,” Mleafrn (who I suspect is a nurse), wrote “When dealing with any health-care provider, it is essential that we tell them assertively what is going on.”
  • Waiting until the last minute. Some of us wait until the appointment is almost over before bringing up our real problems. This happens a lot with potentially embarrassing problems, such as sexual difficulties, digestion problems, or family crises. If you wait until the doctor has his hand on the doorknob to leave, he won’t be likely to give you the attention you need. Bring the most important stuff up first!
  • Not being organized. I advise people to prepare for an appointment like it was a job interview or a business meeting. Mleafrn wrote, “Keep a journal or at least a list of problems or concerns to discuss. Time is limited in appointments so be assertive and organized in what you need to say to get the treatment you need.”
  • Giving away your power. We cannot treat doctors like gods. They may be experts on a medical condition—then again, they may not be—but we are experts on our lives. Don’t be afraid to ask for more help or a second opinion. Check what you learn from the doctor with what you learn from books, Internet forums, or support groups. Clip or download relevant articles and share them with your doctor.

    The point is not to be an adversary. We don’t want a tense relationship. But we don’t want to be pushovers, either. To quote Mleafrn one last time, “We have a right to respectful care. If any health-care provider is rude or condescending, I would likely tell them I don’t want them taking care of me or my family.”

  • Not seeing doctors as people. We want to be treated with respect, so we should treat doctors as whole people, not as brains with stethoscopes attached, as I wrote in The Art of Getting Well. It’s a good idea to ask about family pictures or other personal things you see in their offices. Take an interest in them, and they will be more likely to see you as a whole person.

What about you? What techniques or attitudes have worked in your relationships with doctors? What hasn’t worked? Please share your experiences by commenting here.

Here are a couple of good Web resources on communicating with doctors:



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