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4 Things We Can Do as Patients to Improve Our Connection With Doctors

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As a young child I have vivid memories of trips to my family practitioner. My parents would take me to the doctor and every problem appeared to have a solution. I was dispensed antibiotics for infections, immunizations were given when needed, and my parents always seemed to be offered helpful advice on how to treat any illness or ailments. In the mindset of a child, a doctor always had the right answer and was never wrong. I admired doctors and saw them as the final authority in treating whatever ailment that may have come my way.

As I grew older into emerging adulthood, I realized the antibiotics no longer seemed to be as effective as when I was a child. Illness seemed to be more prevalent in my life and less common in the lives of my friends. My freshman year in college, I faced my first hospitalization as a young adult. The invasive testing started and seemed to have no end. It was through this time that I realized my physicians were taking their best guess at what illnesses I was facing. I had been incredibly thin my entire life, and at one point was suspect of an eating disorder. There was not an underlying eating disorder, just a person my physicians could not figure out.

Looking 15 years ahead, things are much clearer. I was diagnosed with multiple chronic illnesses including Behçet‘s disease; an autoimmune condition and immune deficiency were the underlying threads of many of my health challenges. My perspective of medical care had changed exponentially from the doctor being the genie who had the magic answer and treatment to any and all of my ailments, to the studied physician who worked tirelessly to methodically diagnose and treat me, often unconventionally. 

Through this journey I have developed respect, bonds and relationships with my physicians. They have taught me that the best doctor/patient relationship is a result of collaboration between the doctor and the patient. I have also learned that doctors are dynamic individuals, but also very similar to the patients they treat. They have good days and bad days. They face personal challenges and daily struggles. They have to balance demanding hospital hours with parenting and external life challenges. Many work in a university setting where they have the added responsibilities of research and or training medical students and fellows.

Over the years I’ve come to realize doctors value the connection to their patients as much as patients value a doctor who takes the time to have exceptional bedside manner. They often feel they have to put a part of themselves on hold to remain objective in treating others. When you walk into a doctor’s appointment and your doctor seems distracted, it could be because a family member has passed away, or because they have lost a patient they cared dearly about. They have to detach to a degree to be able to live in a world of illness.

Many of the physicians I have interacted with feel that practicing medicine means it is their role to listen to and take on the problems of their patients — to express or have their own problems is not permissible or accepted. In every appointment I attempt to bridge this gap, be it by a small talk or a note telling my doctors how much they as a person have influenced my life. I have wiped the tears of exhausted nurses who have cried on my shoulder, and had moments of joyful laughter when I have been at the receiving end of physician practical jokes.

Below is a list of ideas for getting to know your treating physician on a deeper level.

1. Ask why the entered the practice of medicine. This opens the dialogue, and allows the patient to see why they chose this field. Most of the time, it’s because they care and want to affect change, but to many, the reasons are unique and very much a part of who they are. I have only had one physician give an answer implying it was for financial reasons. Though he was honest, and it is definitely a benefit, this type of answer can serve as a red flag that they may not be fully invested in complicated patient care.

2. Know the things that matter to each individual doctor. Do they enjoy running or travel? Do they have children or volunteer in school activities? Do they give up holidays with friends and family to be on call? I try to notate these things, so I can encourage them if I know a moment important to them is upcoming.

3. Communicate a desire to be involved in your care and treatment plan. Many patients come to the doctor for a quick fix, and with limited appointment times, doctors often make decisions for their patient. If you are a patient who wants a more active role in your care, ask if you can schedule an extended visit or tell your doctor that you would like to partner with them when it comes to your care. If your condition needs lab monitoring, have them educate you on what they are looking for in your lab work so you can be proactive with diet and or lifestyle changes that may be needed.

4. Be flexible. If a doctor is running 30 minutes behind, recognize they are trying to provide stellar care to the patient before you or an emergency may have come up that required their attention. I have some doctors who know if they need to catch up on time, to take a patient before me. I do this because I realize not every person who sees a doctor is patient and I want to support my physicians.

Living in a medical world can present challenges but it can also bring about personal growth. I have learned so much about myself living with chronic illnesses, but more importantly, I hope I have learned and shared tools to help those reading partner with and understand their treating physician.

Sickness can be a scary thing, but it can also open you up to so much personal growth. As a child, I had a limited appreciation for physicians. As an adult, I realize the dynamic is much more complicated, and my appreciation has grown to an amazing level of respect. I know those who treat chronically ill patients have taught themselves skills and coping mechanisms that are not learned in medical school. There is a great deal of literature on living with invisible illness, but part of living with illness is forming strong relationships with your physicians. These connections can be an incredible thing.

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Originally published: October 18, 2016
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