By Alyssa Rosengard
Choosing a doctor always reminds me of a time when my now-married friend was searching for a mate using online dating sites. She would chat with an individual via the Internet, eventually meeting in person for coffee. My husband and I would be hopeful for her as she sorted through the candidates, but many times, the date was just “not a match.” This made me wonder: Why do we take more time and care searching for our soul mates than we do for our doctors who take care of our very lives?
As patients managing chronic illness, we swim in a sea of specialists, negotiating the rough waters of our medical system. Each physician may be right for a particular patient or diagnosis, yet completely inappropriate for another. As a person with a rare primary immune disorder (common variable immune deficiency), I’ve found it is crucial for me to be confident in my choice of oncologist, neurologist, pulmonologist, etc. Each doctor should be a good fit for my disorder and personality.
So how do we, as patients, go about finding the correct physician in our inflexible and unforgiving U.S. healthcare system? Over the past 10 years of illness, I have collected a few basic core beliefs that have helped. First and foremost, I simply keep in mind that doctors are just human beings. They are not the god-like, all-powerful beings our grandparents and even some of our parents believed them to be. Previous generations were taught not to question doctors, but to have blind faith and trust. These beliefs that have been passed down must be broken if we are to heal. A competent physician should not act like he/she knows it all. There is an enormous difference between being confident and egotistical. A good doctor does deserve respect for the years of schooling and interning, but only if the respect is mutual.
Another key way to determine if a doctor is effective is if he/she truly listens to your symptoms and concerns and accurately records them. How can you tell? The doctor will ask many questions to counterpoint your comments and make eye contact. This may seem a slight point, but do not underestimate it; it is the key to sympathetic treatment. I had a neurologist once who allowed me to suffer for a solid year with daily migraines. She would send me for grueling tests, and I repeatedly jumped through her hoops. She would not prescribe medication, but insisted I keep a journal of symptoms. She made no eye contact, rushed through the appointments and would not listen to my instinct that it was the IV medication I was receiving that was the problem. She had a lovely family. Would she have allowed that amount of pain and suffering for them? Finally, not being able to stand any more pain, I refused my necessary medication. You already know the result: my migraines lessened and almost ceased.
During the past years of horrendous illness and symptoms, I have experienced prolonged misdiagnosis, flubbed testing procedures, lack of sympathy and understanding, and a refusal to listen and notate from numerous doctors. Compiled, this has created years of needless personal, physical and emotional suffering, as well as unnecessary cost to my insurance company. The lesson is this: A person dating is not an inactive participant in the process, and in the same way, patients must learn to participate in their healthcare. Remember that a competent physician should be listening, recording and developing a course of treatment that is acceptable to both of you.
Lately, my physicians have encouraged me to make choices and help guide my own healthcare, which has left me feeling empowered and positive. My advice to anyone wishing for improved patient/doctor communication is to remember you are in an important relationship with that physician. It is a connection that requires mutual trust and respect. If your current doctor is not meeting your needs, accept that it is “not a match,” and move on.