Learning To Talk To Doctors Is An Acquired Skill
Have You Heard Of “White Coat Syndrome?”
It’s a playful term, often used to refer to those of us who get nervous at the doctor’s office. But fear of talking to doctors is common, and it’s not something to make light of. Some people even experience a rise in blood pressure, called white coat hypertension, and many people put off seeing their doctor because of this fear. In turn, they may be putting their health at risk.
Even when we know that our doctors have the best intentions, it can be tricky to assert our needs to a professional—especially for chronically ill or disabled people, who are particularly susceptible to being questioned, undermined, and distrusted because ableism is prevalent in the medical industry.
But it shouldn’t have to be this way—not for anyone. Going to the doctor can be an intimidating experience, but we can learn to advocate for ourselves and openly communicate with our doctors. Just remember: A good doctor will take their time and ask questions to understand your needs best, but a great doctor will enter the room under the assumption that you are the expert on your body.
How To Talk To Your Doctor
Find A Doctor You Can Trust
The first step is finding a doctor that works for you. While your choice of a specialist can often be limited due to your location or insurance coverage, it’s still helpful to do research and get a feel for your potential providers. If you don’t have a choice, you can at least read reviews from other patients and feel more informed about a specific doctor and their practice.
When I first began looking for a doctor, I talked to friends in my area to get their opinion. Next, I read reviews and took notes before making calls. It was helpful to get all of the info I could before making a decision, but everyone’s process is different. Read reviews, learn about others’ experiences, and ask yourself what you value most in a medical provider.
If this is your first visit with a doctor, remember that it’s okay to ask questions and for further clarification. It took me a while to feel comfortable asking these hard questions, but I always remind myself that my doctors provide a service to me, and they are there to help. It’s my right to understand their services and protocols.
A healthy relationship with a provider is one that’s built on mutual trust, respect, and understanding. Ask your doctor not only what experience they have, but also what they plan to do if they don’t have an answer for you. If your doctor can admit when they’re unsure and knows when to call on other providers for assistance, you’re likely in good hands.
Develop A Game Plan
Once you’ve decided that a doctor is a good fit, the next step is practicing how to communicate your needs. It can be easy to doubt yourself or think that you’re overreacting. But despite ableist stereotypes in the media, having clinical hypochondria is extremely rare. Since hospitals and doctors’ offices can make some of us anxious (and the power dynamic can be intimidating), having a game plan makes all the difference.
Here are some tips to help you communicate your needs in an appointment:
Bring notes. Write down what you want to talk to your provider about before your appointment. This can be helpful for you (especially if you’re fearful of forgetting something on the spot), and doctors often appreciate the initiative as it can make their job of helping us a bit easier. A list can also help shape the discussion during the visit and, hopefully, leave you feeling confident that your concerns were addressed.
Ask your doctor if you can record the appointment. Most doctors don’t mind being recorded since it can be challenging for patients to remember everything the provider tells them—especially with medical jargon. Not only will this ensure that you can go back and listen to an appointment if you didn’t understand something the first time, but it’s also a good way to have confidence that your provider will listen to you.
Don’t be afraid to push back. Always trust your gut. You know your body best. It’s okay to assert your needs, especially if a doctor invalidates you or questions the reality of your symptoms. If they continue to discredit you, it’s always okay to leave and seek out another opinion. (More on this below.)
Ask to have any refusal of care documented in your medical chart. While the hope is that all doctors will thoroughly investigate your health issues, it’s important to document when something is ignored. This way, your next provider will know how long you’ve had a concern and how it has (or hasn’t) been addressed.
If something doesn’t feel right, get a second opinion. You are always in charge of your own body. Everyone has a right to refuse a doctor’s plan of action and get a second opinion instead. If something feels off, it’s always best to trust your gut and find care elsewhere.
Learning to talk to doctors is not a skill that most people are born with; it takes practice, so please don’t be hard on yourself if you weren’t as confident as you had hoped to be. The more often you assert your needs to healthcare professionals, the easier it gets, and the quicker you’ll be able to spot a provider who isn’t on the same page as you.
Ultimately, your needs come first—a patient is a doctor’s customer. It’s your right to receive satisfactory care at every doctor’s appointment. And, it’s your right to be treated as if you know your body best, because you do.
E Jamar is a queer, disabled freelance writer based in Milwaukee, WI. E strives to challenge the status quo with their writing on ableism and trauma. When they’re not writing, they can be found contemplating disability justice, consuming copious amounts of caffeine, or hanging out with their partner and pug puppy named Acab.