Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

People assume that as a former law professor, when I'm with a doctor, I'm in charge, But if you’ve read How to Be Sick or my post, “The Stigma of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome,” you’ll know that that's not always been the case. However, after twelve years of chronic illness, I’m happy to report that I’m less intimidated by doctors than I used to be.

Here are six strategies to help minimize the odds you’ll be intimidated and to help ensure you make the most of the short time allotted to you with the doctor.

1. You don't work for the doctors and the staff!

Put yourself in this mindset: "The doctors and the staff work for me!" I don’t mean to suggest that you can order them to do whatever you want. But they work for you in the same sense that an an accountant or even a hairdresser does. It's easy to forget this, partly because you're in their "house" and partly because you've come seeking help and so it can feel as if they have all the knowledge even though you may know more about your medical issues than they do.

To remind myself of who works for whom, while I'm waiting, I often repeat to myself: “He works for me”; or “She works for me.” I also practice mindful attention to what’s around me as a way to take my mind off any anxiety about the upcoming interaction. I’ve found that every setting is interesting if I bring all my senses to bear on it. This mindfulness practice helps to keep me from feeling intimidated about the upcoming interaction with the doctor because I can’t simultaneously be paying careful attention to what’s presenting itself to my senses and, at the same time, be worried about the upcoming interaction. 

2. See if a friend or relative can go with you.

Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

I take my husband whenever I can. His presence is helpful for several reasons. I feel less intimidated because I know I have an ally with me. I’ve also noticed that when doctors see him, rightly or wrongly, they become more attentive to what I’m saying and are also more forthcoming with information and explanations. 

And, on the way home, I get a second opinion on how the appointment went: Did I feel listened to? Did the doctor involve me in the decision-making

You need not take a partner. Take your adult child or a cousin or a friend. Tell them ahead of time what you’re hoping to get out of the appointment and what you’d like them to be looking out for on your behalf. If the appointment didn't go well, they can confirm your sense that you received less than caring treatment. This validates your perception that what went on in the examining room was not your fault.

3. Come with a list in hand.

I make a list of what I want to raise, in order of priority. The list serves several purposes. First, it helps me manage my own time so I don’t linger on one item too long or stray off onto something I’d already decided wasn’t important enough to raise at this appointment. Second, most doctors seem to like seeing my list and will prompt me from it by saying, “Okay. What’s next on your list?” The list keeps us focused on the issues I want to raise.

All in all, with my list, I feel like an equal participant in the interaction and, that alone, is an effective counter to feeling intimidated.

4. Let the doctor be the expert but don’t be afraid to ask questions.

Although doctors work for you (always remember that!), you are seeking them out for their expertise, so go with an open mind and with the assumption that they are knowledgeable and are seeking the best outcome for you. That said, don’t be shy about asking questions, including alternative treatments.

Unless the doctor has encouraged you otherwise, I don’t recommend bombarding him or her with information from the internet. If you have information that you think is important, share it in a way that's non-confrontational. You could say something like: “Doctor, I found this article that I thought might interest you.”

5. Repeat back your understanding of what's come out of the appointment.

Before the doctor leaves, briefly repeat back to him or her what you understand has come out of the appointment, especially the instructions for any new medications. You don't want to get to the car afterward and not remember some important detail of what you're supposed to do!

6. Don’t stop seeing a doctor you like just because of one visit that didn't go well.

You may have a doctor you've been seeing for a while and have come to believe in and trust. Then you have an appointment at which she's in a rush and isn’t focusing on you. When this used to happen to me, I’d jump to the conclusion: “She doesn’t want me as her patient anymore.” But I’ve learned that if I’ve already established a good relationship with a doctor, this reaction is off the mark. Life can be stressful for doctors too. This may have been a day when she was badly overbooked or dealing with personal problems of her own. For this reason, it's better to treat one disappointing visit as just that—disappointing—and give the doctor another chance. 

***

Those are six strategies that I've found to be helpful. Sometimes, despite your best efforts, that intimidation factor is in full force and a doctor truly lets you down. This is a good time to cultivate equanimity—realizing that sometimes things work out well for you in life and sometimes they don’t. From this place of mental balance, you can be proactive and take measured, concrete steps to improve the care you're getting, even if it means finding another doctor.

© 2013 Toni Bernhard. Thank you for reading my work. I'm the author of three books:

How to Live Well with Chronic Pain and Illness: A Mindful Guide (Fall 2015). The theme of handling doctors skillfull is expanded upon in in this book.

How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow (2013)

How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and their Caregivers (2010) 

Visit www.tonibernhard.com for more information.

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