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The 14 Hardest Parts of 'Doctor Shopping' We Don't Talk About

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When many people think of the term “doctor shopping,” it often carries a negative connotation – conjuring up images of patients who are overly “picky,” or perhaps of people looking for a doctor who will give them whatever diagnosis, medication or treatment they’re asking for.

The reality is that doctor shopping isn’t necessarily a bad thing; in fact, for many of those who live with a chronic illness, disability or rare disease, it’s critical for receiving proper medical care and treatment.

If the doctor you’re seeing is not able to help you, is treating you disrespectfully or is making you feel uncomfortable, you have every right to “shop around” for a new one who will treat you the way you deserve – as both a person and a patient.

In her article If You Don’t Click With Your Doctor, You’re Allowed to Find a Different One, Mighty contributor Shannon Jade writes:

Think of it this way: if you were planning to book a holiday, chances are you would search and explore several airlines, hotels or even destinations before making your final decisions, just in case you found something great or landed on a better deal. If you were buying a wedding dress, you probably wouldn’t grab the first one you saw – you’d shop around and see if you could find something cheaper, a better fit or a little closer to what you’d imagined for yourself.

How is the medical industry any different?

It’s time we bust the misconceptions surrounding doctor shopping, and educate others on the reality of what it’s really like to bounce from doctor to doctor looking for proper and helpful medical care. (Hint: It’s not the “fun” kind of shopping.)

We asked our Mighty chronic illness community to share an aspect of doctor shopping that is not often talked about, and what they wish others understood about this process. “Shopping” for new doctors can be frustrating, time-consuming and incredibly taxing, both physically and emotionally – and being judged or shamed for doing what is necessary for your health only makes the experience more challenging.

Here’s what our community told us about the reality of doctor shopping:

1. Doctor shopping isn’t about finding a doctor who will give you the answers you want.

I’m not looking for someone to tell me what I want to hear, I’m looking for someone with answers I desperately need.” – Bunny M.

When I ‘doctor shop’ I am not looking for someone to shove pills my way or just agree with my thoughts about what’s going on in my body. I am looking for someone willing to listen, and care, and look outside the box when the tests say I’m ‘normal’ but my symptoms say otherwise.” – Lessa B.

My favorite assumption is when a loved one tells you after you’ve seen four rheumatologists that I’m looking for the answers I want, that I want to be sick, and I want to hear the worst news… when all I really want is actual medical care and treatment, and also to be believed.” – Charmane S.

It isn’t about finding a doctor who will give you medication. It’s about finding a doctor who listens to you and does their best to understand and help you. Sometimes people think because you’ve jumped from one doctor to another you are fishing for a certain diagnosis when really you are just trying to find a doctor who isn’t going to dismiss your symptoms.” – Chloe J.

I look for a doctor that will respect me. A doctor that will really listen to and consider what I have to say even if they don’t agree. A doctor that acknowledges what I am going through, what I feel, and how that may impact my life. A doctor that will work with me to get my health back on track. A doctor that does not let their ego get in the way of what is best for the patient. A doctor that does not belittle me and is not condescending. Respect and a partnership is key.” – Daniella M.

2. Doctor shopping may become a necessity if a doctor is unable or unwilling to treat you.

“You could very well get passed off between three or more doctors before someone is finally willing to take you on as a patient because you have a rare or complicated condition that no one wants to deal with. It’s never as easy as ‘oh I have this, so I need to see this type of doctor.’” – Sally F.

“There are a lot of dead-ends and frustration. I typically doctor shop when my current one has run out of ideas and is just shooting in the dark or I feel the person is mishandling my case.” – Devin J.

I think a lot of people don’t understand that there are primary care doctors, and we have to see them to then be sent off to a speciality doctor, like a neurologist. But when our cases get too complicated, the ‘specialists’ send us to even more specialists and so sometimes we’re shopping around, but other times were just moving to a more narrowly focused specialist.” – Alex T.

You can end up assigned doctors who panic and have no clue how to treat you. It takes months of self-advocacy to find a good one that respects your experience. Having doctors accuse you of not understanding your illness or of having a psych issue when it’s physical can make it hard to try the next doc you see.” – Lydia J.

For me, it looks like doctor shopping but it’s really trying to find a doctor who is willing to even try to treat me. I went to the ER this past weekend and they even wouldn’t touch me. They said my case is too complex and I take too many medications for them to do anything. I’ve had multiple doctors say, ‘There is nothing I can do for you.’ At that point, you have to go look for another doctor. The other reason I’ve not stayed with a particular doctor is because of how rudely I was treated and incorrect information given to me. We shouldn’t have to continually submit ourselves to doctors who don’t believe us or treat us as less than human.” – Sarah H.

3. Taking the time to “shop around” may prove helpful in the long run, but waiting for care can be harmful to your health.

It’s frustrating because if you take the time to truly doctor shop you can also be sacrificing your health. It took over two months to get into the recommended rheumatologist [when] I was in the middle of a flare.” – Chelsea G.

4. Waiting a long time to see a specialist can be very stressful and anxiety-inducing.

When there is only one specialist in your area. They have a six-month waiting list. You put so much hope into this doctor that you have yet to meet. You know it is a 50/50 chance that they will be amazing or a complete waste of time. It is so stressful not knowing which side they will fall on.” – Heather S.

The weeks – or sometimes months – of uncertainty that precede an appointment with a new doctor. Will they believe me? Will they try to help me? Will they pass me off to yet another specialist? How much are they going to change my medications – and how much is that change going to mess with me? It’s really difficult to not get your hopes up that a new doctor might be able to help, but it’s just as difficult to get them up when you’ve been disappointed so many times.” – Tera A.

5. Doctor shopping can quickly get expensive.

Paying for doctor appointments which are a waste of time over and over again, trying to find someone who gives a hoot is painful and more frustrating than the medical expenses that at least have purpose. You don’t get to not pay because you didn’t like the doctor and will never see them again.” – Jacqueline B.

“It still costs a lot out of pocket and has to be approved through your insurance. It gets really hard financially after awhile especially when you are going to naturopaths or functional medicine who want the fees upfront, and then good luck getting it covered. Most want to run blood tests before they will talk about a plan.” – Devin J.

When I complain about all the awful doctors I’ve seen, people say ‘just switch insurance!’ Well, the problem is that I’m a 19-year-old community college student who lives at home and can only work part-time because I’m chronically ill. I’m on my parents’ insurance and because of the crazy price of medical insurance, we can’t switch to a different one. The amount of money we’ve spent on copays alone while playing ‘doctor Russian roulette’ is ridiculous (that’s where I pick a random doctor to see and hope for the best because I’m out of other options). I finally found a good doctor and received a diagnosis, but the amount of money, time and stress it took to just get diagnosed was insane. As if being chronically ill isn’t expensive enough as is.” – Jordan H.

Even when everything is covered, you still spend hundreds of dollars and hours on the issue, between travel costs, paying copays to many that might be dead ends, etc.” – Oliver B.

6. You might have to travel a long way to find a doctor who can help.

I have to travel to get to the right doctor. I could spend thousands of dollars trying out doctors locally that may not have the expertise to help me, or I could spend that money traveling to see a doctor who can help me. Traveling is difficult for me, but has been worth the effort in order to get proper care.” – Sarah L.

7. Online reviews aren’t always a good indicator of whether a doctor can help you.

“Reviews aren’t nearly enough to avoid bad experiences. Many of us wish we could leave an honest review about a horrible doctor, but don’t for fear of getting sued. Just because someone’s dad’s aunt had an amazing experience at so-and-so Endocrinology, that doesn’t mean they’re a competent doctor.” – Meg B.

8. The office staff can make or break your appointment.

“The office staff must be adequately friendly and competent. A doctor is only as good as their staff. Even if the doctor is kind, compassionate and well-educated, if his/her staff is not, it’s not the best place to receive care, as you will be dealing with the staff most of time via phone, online portals, in person, etc. If they are nasty, rude and demeaning or make constant mistakes — move on.” – Stephen F.

9. Doctor shopping can be uncomfortable when your doctors know each other.

Doctor shopping can be really uncomfortable in a highly specialized field because a lot of the doctors know each other. If you had a bad experience, failed surgery, etc. with one doctor, another specialist may side with him/her just because they studied together, one was the other’s attending, they met at a conference and became buddies, etc…” – Kelliann G.

10. Depending on your location, doctor shopping may not be possible.

In my little corner of the world we are in the middle of a healthcare crisis. Hundreds of thousands of people without access to a PCP. Here we are lucky to get to see a doctor, and it’s all a take-whatever-you-can-get sort of situation. Doctor shopping is non-existent where I live.” – Donna-Jean I.

“It’s not really a thing in the UK so often we’re stuck with what we’ve got.” – Melissa A.

I think in Canada it’s harder to do this since there’s a doctor shortage. You’re lucky if you can get a family doctor in the first place so we pretty much stick with who we have. When it comes to seeing specialists we need our GP to give referrals and in some cases we have a slight say, all depends on how many are close. It makes having a bad doctor 10 times worse because we are damned if we stay, and damned if we go because then we have to go to the ER every time we need a script. Yes we have free medical care, but we don’t have enough general practitioners.” – Melanie J.

“For those of us who live in countries with a public health system we don’t have as many options for specialists and it’s much harder to get to them. There’s a lot of jumping though hoops and the more doctors you go through the less doctors will believe you or trust you. It’s a vicious cycle.” – Rosie H.

11. Even if doctor shopping is possible in your area, there are many factors that can make it difficult.

Getting in to [see] some doctors is so difficult that I’ve just given up. Finding an available psychiatrist in the center of Baltimore/Washington took many hours on the phone (and my mind is frazzled and my body is in pain). Out of 27 in our insurance coverage, three were taking new patients. One could see me in three months, one in two months, one in 30 days. So I chose the one who could see me soonest, not because she was good, but because I was desperate. Two years later our insurance dropped her, and I had to start all over again. Desperation is not doctor shopping. But I got judged for switching, even though I had no choice.” – Lou C.

Two things: first, insurance coverage can ultimately decide what doctors I get to see. Second, bad past experiences (sexual trauma at the hands of male doctors) mean that for some procedures and issues, I will see only a female doctor.” – Alyson A.K.

“Doctor shopping is very difficult in an HMO. It’s hard enough getting the first referral, but trying to explain to your GP that the first specialist doesn’t know how to treat you but won’t admit it is… difficult.” – Kelliann G.

[Doctor shopping] isn’t always a choice, especially if you have a complex case and several doctors.” – Jennifer T.

12. Doctor shopping can be frustrating, tiring and emotionally draining.

It is emotionally and psychologically draining. Especially when you’ve had a complicated medical history. I work in the medical field but hate having to go to a new office as I know how some clinic staff (clerical, nursing and/or doctors) treat patients with rare medical issues or patients that actually know the treatment process better than most doctors for what they are being seen for. Almost no chronically ill people go doctor to doctor for the heck of it, and only want someone to treat us how these doctors would want their family to be treated. It is scary to be sick and know something is wrong but no one believes or takes you seriously because it isn’t an easy answer.” – Tabitha H.

Nothing about the process is fun for me. I view seeing multiple specialists as a necessary evil. It is an endless cycle of reluctance to go, hope for answers with treatments, fear of the doctor’s judgments and disappointments without improvement.” – Ern L.

13. It can be hard to motivate yourself to keep searching for answers, and not give up.

When you have to doctor shop it can take years of hard work and diligence. You have to constantly remind yourself that not all doctors are ignorant or just plain bad at their jobs, that there are doctors who actually care about their patients. Because after five to six years of being let down over and over again, it is so easy to want to give up and settle for the first physician you come across.” – Aflekia K.

14. You have every right to doctor shop and do what you need to do for your health.

I think that the most important message about ‘doctor shopping’ is that you have the right to doctor shop. Doctors and society seem to think that doctors know all. Yes, they have a high degree of training. But they do not know your body. They do not live in your body. I have been right several times about what is going on with my body and have had to work to convince my doctors. Sometimes I have switched doctors.” – Kerry S.

You will meet many people before you choose who will be your partner. A doctor is a very important partner in your life – why wouldn’t you look for the best fit? You never have seen ‘enough’ doctors if your problems are not under control.” – Bayla J.

Originally published: October 30, 2018
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