Do You Ever Think Your Doctor Just Doesn't Like You?

You could be right. Docs are human and they like some people more than others.

Posted Nov 12, 2013

I am a delightful, pleasant, well-oriented, alert, elderly lady. So say my doctors. And, interestingly enough, those doctors I trusted most were those who were the most likely to speak well of me. The doctors I least liked defined me by negatives like elderly—I was 60 at the time! My favorite doc called me delightful. Such insight. 

I discovered this all when I asked my surgeon for my complete file in preparation for writing a book about my journey with triple-negative breast cancer. The file was amazing reading—I learned what doctors said about me when they thought I wasn't listening

Why do doctors feel they need to make personal comments about patients? If I were depressed or confused, OK. But otherwise, what is the point?  I know being pleasant helps make their lives easier, but is it clinically noteworthy?

Whatever the reason, these comments told me a lot about my relationship with my doctors. 

Doctors are, of course, human, and they like some people more than others, so it is not surprising that some of my doctors were more fond of me than others. What’s important, though, is that whether a doctor likes or dislikes you can affect your care. So says Jerome Groopman, M.D., in How Doctors Think. Doctors who like you are more apt to listen to your complaints and take them seriously, rather than jumping to conclusions based on generalities that may or may not apply. Worse, not listening may mean they miss or misdiagnose important symptoms.

These feelings can be even more pronounced in the seriously ill, Groopman says, noting research by social psychologist Judy Hall. Some doctors have problems dealing with patients with poor prognoses, Hall says, because it makes them feel powerless and frustrated. 

I went through a slew of oncologists during and after treatment. I was an active participant in my care, so if a doc was disappointing, I moved on.

Here’s Oncologist #1,a brusque fellow who first told me rather mercilessly that I had hormone-negative breast cancer, which was aggressive and lethal and, because of that, I would need chemotherapy. “Unfortunately, this lady has an aggressive form of cancer,” he wrote afterward. This lady? Unfortunately, indeed. How warm and cozy. I went to him once and left devastated. I did not need that. I liked him as much as he apparently liked me. And, by the way, given that I am clearly alive more than seven years later, the disease was certainly not lethal.

Oncologist #2 made no comments about my personality, but did note that I had gained some weight. In fact, I had lost weight—intentionally, through exercise and healthy eating. Shows how much he paid attention. Also, my blood work from him lists me as male. So…. Nevertheless, he was my primary oncologist and I am secure in the treatment he gave me.  I fired him after treatment, though, because he was habitually late or absent. One day, he was an hour and a half late. This was for my pre-chemo appointment, so it meant I had to wait another hour and a half for my infusion, which sort of blew the good vibes I had developed through my acupuncture session that morning. Plus, the office increasingly filled with his other patients and was ultimately packed with many very ill people. It was a horrible environment and I ended up in tears. I told him this. He shrugged it off. When treatment was over, I shrugged him off. 

Oncologist #3 was a woman and I thought maybe that might help, so I tried her for follow-up care. She insisted I take tamoxifen, even though I was ER-negative and it wouldn’t help. She scheduled me for an unnecessary bone scan even though I had no symptoms. And she called me elderly. I could call her a few things, but I did not call her back for an appointment. 

My radiation oncologist was a doll. I truly loved visiting her. She was upbeat, encouraging, and told me my prognosis was excellent—something the others didn’t feel necessary to consider mentioning. And she called me delightful. We talked a lot about medicine and some about art and about hiking Colorado’s mountains. I went to her for follow-up care until she got a better job and moved south. Our loss. Big time.

My surgeon is a prince. I feel incredibly secure being in his capable hands. I know he took out all the cancer—with good, clear margins. He called me pleasant, which I think I normally am. He also said I was alert and well oriented, which sort of damns me with faint praise: Patient found her way to my office; does not drool. Still, I know this was meant as a positive in his mind. I have since graduated from his care and actually miss him. The radiologist who first found my cancer called him meticulous. He is and I value that.

It's simple human nature: We like people who like us. If you don't like your doc, chances are that doc feels the same way.  On most levels, this should not affect your care, but a negative relationship with the person in whose hands you have entrusted your health can make a difficult journey that much harder.  And a doctor's preconceived notions of you could change the options they offer. 

Bottom line:  Life is too short to spend with negative people, docs included. Who knows, that could make it even shorter.

[For more info, read Top Ten Tips to Get the Doc You Need.]