Here’s the dilemma that affects everyone who’s ever been sick, injured, pregnant, or even just proactive about their annual checkup: Your doctor has the credentials and medical expertise. You have the body in question. Between the two of you, who knows more about what’s going on in that body?
Doctors are excellent, for the most part. They’re smart, experienced, and available to care for you through the convoluted mess of the American healthcare system. In that convoluted mess, however, there are a lot of other patients to whom doctors must be available, too; in addition to being busy, they also can’t magically know what you’re feeling or thinking. It’s on you to accurately describe your symptoms, concerns, and treatment goals, but it’s on them to listen and take you seriously.
If a medical professional isn’t listening to you, you have options. Here’s how to advocate for yourself at the doctor.
Do the right research on your doctor
This is hard, of course, because your insurance may only let you see a certain provider, but if you have options to choose from and the issue facing you isn’t a life-or-death emergency, it’s worth taking the time to look up any potential doctor.
“My clients seemed to be happiest when they worked with a care provider who shared their values. That way the patient has to do less on-the-spot advocating, which can be a lot to manage during labour, birth, and early postpartum,” said Susannah, a former birth doula in Brooklyn who declined to use her last name.
There are a few websites that can help. Think Rate My Professor or Yelp, but for the people who prescribe your medications, write your referrals, or reset your broken bones. Health Grades, Doctor Reviews, and Rate MDs allow clients to review care providers and medical professionals. If you book your appointments through ZocDoc, you can read and leave reviews there, too. As with any kind of review service, remember your mileage may vary. There’s no guarantee the person writing a glowing review isn’t the doctor’s daughter or the person slamming the practitioner isn’t their lifelong enemy.
Call the office and ask a few questions as well. It’s well within your rights to suss out whether the establishment’s values and overall vibe mesh with your own, and to shop around for a place that makes you feel comfortable, even during your first outreach.
Get a new doctor if you don’t like your current one
If you found yourself in an emergency room unexpectedly or a doctor’s office you researched turns out to be no-good in person, you are totally allowed to switch providers.
“It may be a lot of work upfront to make the switch, but it will be easier in the long run,” said Susannah.
Annie, a 22-year-old social behavioural therapist who also declined to use her last name, agreed. The former student athlete told Lifehacker about the bevy of knee injuries she sustained while she was a lacrosse player.
“After my second injury, I went back to my first surgeon because of a pop I felt in my knee. I had already torn something in my knee before this, so I was familiar with the feeling and was certain I had re-torn it. When I went in, the doctor bent my knee and told me I was fine. I told him I knew it was torn, but he insisted I was fine and told me there was nothing he could do. After I asked for an MRI and was denied, he said, ‘There is a mental aspect of pain. Have you ever thought of speaking to a psychiatrist?’ I immediately left and scheduled an appointment with a different doctor. Three days later, I got an MRI and was told I had a torn meniscus that required a procedure to fix and had a hook placed in my knee,” she recalled.
Had Annie not sought out a second opinion and confirmed her meniscus was torn, she could have faced more severe pain, mobility issues, and more invasive surgery down the line.
Understand when to trust yourself
All of that said, there may be instances in which you can’t do comparative research or find a new doctor. If you live in a small town or have a relatively unique medical issue, for instance, you might just get what — or who — you get.
“If you can’t switch, remember that this person works for you. Though there’s a power dynamic built into the typical doctor-patient relationship (think waiting in a room alone to see a doctor for five minutes), they are there to take care of you and your comfort should be their top priority. Remembering that can realign the roles and help patients remember their agency in the situation,” said Susannah.
She suggested writing down your questions, comments, and concerns before you go in because “white coat syndrome is real and it’s easy to forget the things you want to cover during the appointment.” Take notes during the appointment or, if the doctor consents and local laws allow, record it so you can recall exactly what was said and how it was said. If the doctor denies you a medication or test you request, make sure to have them write clearly in your medical records that they refused it so any future provider knows.
Annie added, “My advice would be to always listen to your body because no one knows it better than you. If you really believe something is wrong, do not stop seeking answers until you know what the problem is.”
Think back to Susannah’s insight: The doctor works for you. Don’t be shy or afraid to speak up. Do it firmly but kindly. Your goal is to work together to get at the root of your symptoms or come up with a care plan that works for you and is possible within that provider’s skill set. That will only happen if you’re both communicating. You are important, in this situation and always, and don’t forget it.
Susannah had great advice for any doctors reading this, too, so we’ll end with it: “Treat the doctor-patient relationship like a human relationship. Listen and be compassionate. Become aware of the biases and -isms you bring to your practice. Ensure they do not impact your treatment. Listen most closely to the most marginalised voices. Each patient is an expert in their own body. At the confluence of the patient’s innate body wisdom and your medical expertise, good treatment can happen.”
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