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. Remind yourself that the doctors and the staff work for you, not vice versa.
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. Why is it so easy for us to forget this? For me, it’s due to a combination of factors. First, I’m in their “house” not mine and am forced to put on a nightgown-looking thingy that makes me look like a child. Second, because I’ve come seeking help, it can feel as if they have all the knowledge and all the power, even though I often know more about my medical condition than they do. Third, I’m often at my weakest in the doctor’s office. The trip to get there, followed by the typical waiting times—first in the waiting room and then in the examination room—can take its toll even if I’m having a relatively good day.
Add to these three the fact that sometimes I’m too sick to sit in the examining room chair to wait for the doctor, so as soon my temperature, pulse, and blood pressure have been taken, I lie down on the examining table to wait. In this position (and in that silly gown), it’s hard to feel as if the person who comes in the room and towers over me…works for me!
As I sit (or lie) 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 future.
2. Consider taking someone with you.
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.
Finally, 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? Was he or she open to treating a “can’t give you a pill and fix you” patient?
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. An extra pair or ears and eyes…and an extra brain…has been invaluable in helping me to not feel intimidated by even the most curt and brusque of doctors. For one thing, after the appointment, my husband can confirm that what I perceived as less than caring treatment was not in my imagination. This validation enables me to stop second-guessing myself. In fact, it encourages me to treat myself with compassion over a disappointment that was not my fault.
3. Bring a list to the appointment.
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 task at hand, and they know that when we’re done with the list, we’re done with the appointment.
Third, I learned in a book called How Doctors Think that most doctors decide on a diagnosis and treatment within minutes of seeing you. I think that my list makes them less likely to jump to a quick conclusion, because the list forces them to see me as more than a body with a symptom that requires a quick fix.
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.
What if the doctor says: “I don’t like lists.”? Fine. Put it down. Here’s your secret weapon though: be sure to memorize it before you go to the appointment. If the list is too long to memorize, it’s too long for one appointment anyway.
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 what alternative treatments are available. There’s a practical reason for doing the latter. Doctors are often thinking about alternatives—just not out loud! When you ask questions, it encourages them to talk to you about what’s going on in their heads and that’s something you want to be a party to.
I don’t recommend regaling the doctor with information from other sources (unless the doctor has encouraged to you do so). You’re likely to lose a doctor’s attention if you say: “Research on the Internet shows…” If you have information that you think is important, share it in a way that communicates that you think of you and your doctor as partners in your healthcare. Hand it to the doctor, while saying 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 good doctor 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)
Visit www.tonibernhard.com for more information.
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