8 Ways to Get the Most Out of Your Patient-Doctor Relationship

As someone with a chronic illness, I spend a lot of time at various doctor’s offices, and often at my worst – exhausted, in pain, anxious and scared. Something that “healthy” people and doctors may not realize is how much work it is to just get to the appointment. Getting out of bed and performing basic tasks is sometimes more than I can handle, so most of the time going to a doctor’s appointment takes so much out of me that I cannot do anything else that day or the next.

On top of the physical logistics, I’ve often waited months for this appointment and spent weeks thinking of all the things I want to say in the short amount of time I’ll have. Sometimes I’m worried I’ll hear bad news, or worse: “We didn’t find anything” or “There’s nothing we can do.” If it’s a new doctor, forget it – I’m a nervous wreck because I have no idea whether this doctor will be sympathetic and want to help or misdiagnose me with an eating disorder. It’s a lot like a job interview if you’ve been out of work for a long time – there’s a lot of desperation and necessity.

So, as patients, how do we deal with this? How do we cultivate good relationships with our doctors and get the most out of each appointment? I have a few techniques I use, but first, something to keep in mind:

You can say no.

This is a mental technique – a way to feel empowered, regain control and reduce panic and anxiety. I am not advocating refusing a health plan laid out by your doctor.

My husband is the one who taught me this. Most of us, even subconsciously, feel intimidated by doctors. Doctors can seem like school principals – we have to do what they say and we’ll get in trouble if we don’t. I used to feel like they had all the control. I want to be clear in that I believe that most doctors care deeply for their patients and give sound medical advice that should be followed. I’m not saying you should say no, I’m saying you can say no. Like every other area of life, you have the power over your own body and life, and keeping that in mind has been very helpful to me.

The point isn’t what the doctor is telling you, it’s that you have the right to refuse any kind of treatment or test. To some of you that may seem obvious. But for me, having that knowledge transforms my state of mind and makes me feel in control.

The only caveat here is that, unfair as this is, we have to be careful not to seem recalcitrant or like we think we know better than the doctor. It’s essential to always be respectful and polite, and do everything possible so we aren’t flagged as “noncompliant,” which can be incredibly detrimental to your healthcare.

Another mental technique I use is trying to think of doctors the same way I think of any other professional I deal with. I pay them for a service, and I’m allowed to feel however I want about the service I receive. I’m also allowed to find another professional if I’m not happy with them. If I have a bad experience with a doctor who I’ve either seen before and liked or who I’ve never seen before, I try to give them the benefit of the doubt and think maybe they’re having a bad day (once or twice – more than a couple bad appointments and I’m done). That doesn’t make me less upset when I’m mistreated, but it does help me give them another chance (and I keep telling myself “it’s not personal, it’s not personal”).

It helps to keep in mind that doctors are under a large amount of legal and organizational pressure. For example, doctors who work at hospitals or large medical organizations are constrained by the policies of the company they work for. Doctors are also often pressured to spend only certain amounts of time with each patient – sometimes as little as 15 minutes.

Let’s put aside for the moment the fact that the medical industry could put more emphasis on empathy and the patient’s quality of life. We have to deal with the way things are now, and here are a few of the ways I handle it:

• Do your homework. I spend a lot of time researching my condition and available treatments as well as general medical information, anatomy and medical terms. I also read books written by doctors so I can increase my understanding of the medical industry and the challenges doctors face, which helps me be a more informed patient.

• Make a list of questions and goals. I go to every important doctor appointment with a printed list of all of the questions I have, and I hand the doctor a copy. I’ve also started including short-term and long-term goals on my list. For example, a short-term goal might be to find a physical therapist and a long-term goal might be to reduce pain and improve stamina. I include a list of things I’d like to try or find out more about, such as acupuncture or a gastric neurostimulator, which I also give my doctor.

• Take notes. I always take notes and answer the questions on my list, because I often find myself leaving the appointment and having no memory of it, especially if I’m stressed.

• Bring a printed list of your medications… I bring this to every appointment and procedure, and I keep a copy in my wallet.

• … and medical history. I do this for every new doctor, important appointment and every procedure. I include a list of surgeries and hospitalizations, diagnoses and my family medical history, as well as a list of the doctors on my medical team, my pharmacy, home-care company and all their contact information. More information is always better, and you’ll usually be asked to provide some of this at most appointments anyway. I print these lists out and bring them with me each time, and I also keep them on my Google Drive so I can refer to them if I have an emergency. It makes life so much easier!

• Bring a friend. For important appointments, I ask my husband or one of my parents to come with me. As I’ve mentioned, I’m sometimes so stressed and intimidated that I’m just completely flustered and don’t stand up for myself. Just having someone who loves me there with me gives me the strength to be my own advocate.

• And finally, show your appreciation. I’ve had some truly appalling medical experiences, but I’ve also had (and have) some amazing doctors who have saved my life and gone above and beyond to help me. The doctors who truly understand that surviving isn’t living and who realize the impact of being in chronic pain, of struggling every minute of every day, deserve our thanks. And I can’t forget the nurses who go the extra mile to make sure I’m comfortable and hold my hand when I’m in agony. I think medical professionals probably hear a lot of complaints, and I want them to hear praise as well. I try to thank them whenever I can and send thank you cards. I really hope that the doctors who have made such a difference in my life know it.

These techniques help me feel prepared and empowered, and the more empowered I feel, the more confident and relaxed I am in stressful appointments. It takes work and time to get better at it, and I definitely still have moments of panic and frustration, but it’s gotten better. I can do this, and so can you!

Follow this journey on Jordan’s blog, Digesting the Facts.

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