4 Mistakes Patients Make

Have you had any problems with your doctor lately?  Are you dissatisfied with his or her care?  Have you had any misunderstandings, or do you feel like he or she doesn’t understand you?

Before you put all the blame on your doctor’s care, take a good honest look at your own behavior and see if you’ve made any of these 4 mistakes in your interaction with your physician.  You and your doctor are both responsible for making the relationship work.

1.  Not being completely honest

Let’s face it, sometimes doctors ask uncomfortable questions.  Sexual history, substance abuse, mental health, there are lots of topics we don’t like discussing with (near) perfect strangers.

We know that sometimes it takes time to build a comfortable relationship.  Often it’s much easier to let a stranger see our naked bodies than to let them know about less-than-perfect choices we’ve made in the past (and sometimes are continuing to make).

As a rule, doctors ask these questions only because we are concerned about the health consequences of the choices you make.  If we ask a teenager if she’s sexually active, it’s because we want her to be safe and healthy, not because we’re nosy busybodies or planning to tell her mom.

Sometimes there’s a very real risk we could hurt someone if we don’t know about their past.  For instance, if I were prescribing medication for a recovering alcoholic, I would want to stay far away from meds with abuse potential, or make a management plan if dangerous drugs (like narcotics) are necessary.  Believe me, I will celebrate and protect your recovery, not judge you for it.

If a doctor asks a question that makes you uncomfortable, or seems unnecessarily personal, it’s OK to ask why they need to know that information.  You won’t offend the doctor and it will give you a chance to increase your comfort level before sharing.

2.  Expecting to get everything done at one visit

Boy is this a big source of conflict.  With the rise of high-deductible plans and the free wellness visit, patients have a financial incentive to get as much done at the annual physical as possible.

Unfortunately that’s not always possible.  We can’t do a physical (which takes time), refill all your medications (which takes MORE time) and assess a new problem (you can guess) all in the time allotted for an annual physical.

We are constantly hearing complaints from patients that doctors run behind.  I see friends complaining on Facebook that they’ve been waiting an hour to see their doctor.  Unfortunately expectations from patients to get more done in each visit contribute to long wait-times. If I give one patient extra time, that means I have to take time away from another patient or I run late.  You wouldn’t like it if I did that to you, would you?  Sometimes it can’t be helped, and a patient turns out to have an emergency (that’s the fun of primary care!) but that doesn’t happen too often.

If you’re my patient, here’s my recommendation.  If you’re coming in to see me for your annual physical and something comes up (like one of your meds isn’t working, or you sprained your ankle) PLEASE tell me before we start.  Better yet, tell Shari as soon as she gets you in the room!  If we need to address an acute problem, we’ll do that instead.  A physical can be done anytime, there’s no pressure to get one done today.

If your meds need refilled, please make an appointment for that.  If you have multiple concerns it’s OK to make an appointment and say there are a couple of things you need to discuss.  You don’t need to ask for a physical just so there will be extra time.

I try to make every patient feel like they’re my only patient.  Sometimes it’s like parenting, LOL!  I have to do my best to treat everyone fairly and respect everyone’s time, and managing MY time is part of that.  As a patient it’s important to be aware that sometimes other patients are waiting.

3.  Not asking enough questions

Communication is a two-way street.  As physicians it’s our responsibility to make sure our patients understand what we’re doing and why.  Explaining a patient’s illness, the cause (if we know it) and the treatment plan are important parts of what we do.

The patient has an important responsibility to reflect back the information to the doctor so that everybody knows the communication is effective.  For instance, if I tell the patient that they have an infection in their prostate gland, and the patient doesn’t know what a prostate gland is, and doesn’t ask, I’ll get the impression that the patient understands everything I said.

If your doctor tells you something that you don’t understand, you must ask questions until you DO understand.  PLEASE don’t feel like you’re asking stupid questions.  There is no such thing!  We KNOW you don’t know what we know.  That’s why we’re the doctor!  We have to explain things to you in a way that you understand.

If you’re my patient and I say something you don’t understand, call me on it!  Be persistent, be a bulldog, be a pain in the butt!  Keep asking.  I’ll keep breaking it down until we find a place to start that’s familiar to you.  If we have to start at “Your nose is this thing in the middle of your face that you breathe through and put your glasses on,” that’s where we’ll start.

It’s your body.  It’s your illness or injury or concern.  It’s my job to make sure you get what’s going on, but it’s your job to help me do it right.

4.  Assuming the doctor knows everything or is always right

Let’s just lay that assumption to rest right now.  NOT.  TRUE.  Nobody knows everything.  Even so-called experts have limits to their knowledge.

I have less trouble with this than some doctors do.  I’m a family doctor and in general we have less problems admitting the limits of our expertise.  In the office I’m pretty ready to admit when I don’t know something and call one of my specialty colleagues.  Many people who have been in to see me in the last few months have seen me haul out my textbooks to look things up, or consult an Internet resource (NOT GOOGLE!!).

My older patients tend to have a “Doctor knows best” mindset that frustrates me sometimes.  I want my patients to participate in creating the treatment plan.  There are usually several good ways to go about achieving any given goal (like getting blood sugar under control).  It’s important to respect the patient’s lifestyle and values in making treatment decisions.

My younger patients, I’m happy to say, are usually right up-front if I ask them to do something that makes them uncomfortable.  That’s good!  I want my patients to be active participants in forming the treatment plan.

If something isn’t adding up, it’s perfectly OK to ask for a second opinion.  No doctor worth seeing will be insulted by asking for another opinion.

Many patients unfortunately are unhappy with their doctor but it’s important to remember that communication with your physician is a two-way street.  By being honest and forthright, keeping expectations realistic, insisting on having things explained in a way you  understand, and making sure you have an active role in forming your treatment plan, you can go a long way towards making a strong partnership with your doctor.


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