This morning’s Wall Street Journal featured an article which began, “Sometimes it’s the patient who gives the doctor a headache.” The article cited studies that suggest doctors are more likely to misdiagnose you if you’re considered difficult. Traits of difficult patients included multiple symptoms or conditions, chronic pain, or mental health disorders. It turns out that when doctors have to spend extra energy coping with the curves that patients throw at them, they forget to keep their eye on the ball: they have trouble remembering details of your health condition. As one says, “These are the patients when you see their name on your schedule you say, ‘Uh-oh.’”
Like teachers and leaders, experience helps doctors manage challenging people better. But what about our responsibility as patients? It’s not in anyone’s interest for my grouchiness to prompt a less effective response from my doctor that leads to poorer outcomes for me.
We all know that when we’re not feeling our best, it’s easy to radiate our distress to the people around us, including our caregivers. Perhaps the best thing we can do would be to become aware of how we feel before the doctor visit, and become intentional about making the visit a good experience.
Examine yourself before you go to your doctor. On a scale of 1 to 10, how are you feeling? What’s your experience at that moment if you’re managing pain? How will these feelings affect your visit?
Write down what you hope to accomplish with the visit, and list symptoms that have prompted your concern. How long have these symptoms been occurring? Has anything changed recently in your diet, sleep, exercise, or stress levels that might have caused the injury or illness? What questions do you hope the doctor will answer?
If you’ve had difficult encounters with your doctor in the recent past, it won’t cost you anything to recognize that and to apologize if you were partly to blame. “Gee, doc, I wasn’t feeling my best the last time I saw you. I’m going to turn over a new leaf today.”
Smile at the beginning of the visit. Make conversation with each of the people in the office you meet for preliminary paperwork and assessments. Their spoken and unspoken reactions to you as they brief your doctor may influence how your exam will go before the visit even begins.
If you’ve had a difficult relationship with your doctor for a while, maybe it’s time to turn the page. Sometimes starting a new medical relationship without a history of dissatisfaction and contention might offer you a fresh start. But if you do switch, it’s doubly important to admit the role you might have played in causing that relationship to fail, and to resolve to make changes. And remember, your patient records will follow you to the new doctor; if your grouchiness is reflected in your chart, you may need to invest extra time and effort to establish the rapport that will help your doctor be at their focused best when they’re treating you.