Healthcare has become such an ordeal today that for many patients, doctors’ dismissive attitudes undermine whatever benefit they should get from going to the doctor. This trend isn’t just frustrating – it’s dangerous.
Your doctor should listen to your concerns and your account of your symptoms and explain to you what different diagnoses and test results mean. As a patient, you deserve nothing less. Photo Credit: Corbis Images.
Do You Trust Your Doctor?
It’s no surprise that many of us don’t like to go to the doctor. There are the long waits in lobbies, often surrounded by ill patients who could spread germs that make us sick (or sicker). There’s the cost – high prices if you don’t have medical insurance, and potentially high copays even if you do. Often, you spend far longer waiting for the doctor than you do actually getting any medical attention. Of course, there’s the uncomfortable nature of the appointment itself – needle sticks, skin exams, screening tests that are never quite as non-invasive as we would like.
However, the truly exasperating part for far too many patients is the central purpose of the appointment – their encounter with their doctor.
Doctors spend an average of just seven with a patient, according to The New York Times. It’s no wonder that you – and, for that matter, three out of five patients, according to National Public Radio – feel rushed when you finally do see your physician. You actually are being rushed.
Some patients find that it’s not only the clock that makes them feel dismissed, but their doctors’ actions toward them. Whether it’s because a physician doesn’t have time or simply isn’t interested, too many patients no longer feel listened to – and for good reason.
“Studies show that doctors will interrupt patients within 10 seconds after they begin speaking,” physician and patient advocate Dr. Leana Wen wrote in Everyday Health. That’s not much time to get your point across. That’s not much time to ask your questions or to summarize what happened in the time between your first symptom and the appointment. Honestly, that’s barely enough time to say “hello.” It’s certainly not enough time to build trust – something essential when you consider that you’re putting your health, and perhaps your life, in the hands of this physician.
Do you trust your doctor? I was surprised to find out how many patients don’t.
The Medical Neglect of Delaying a Cancer Diagnosis
When I began researching cancer for Cancer Control Month, I was shocked by the number of patients commenting on articles about the doctors who had ignored their symptoms or misdiagnosed their loved ones. There were people who lost their spouses, their parents, their children, all because a doctor ignored complaints of symptoms that – eventually – turned out to indicate cancer. These physicians dismissed patients’ reports of their symptoms, not bothering to order additional tests or refer patients to specialists, or they threw pills at the problem instead of trying to determine its true cause. Because of their failure to listen to their patients, these doctors missed common cancer diagnoses for weeks, months, even years.
Unsurprisingly, these patients felt more than a little bitter. They believed that doctors didn’t care. They distrusted physicians – not just their competency, but their motives, and not just individuals, but as a profession. Healthcare shouldn’t have to be this way.
Unfortunately, I know that there are plenty of stories of doctors misdiagnosing cancer in patients. Let me tell you a story.
Years before I met him, a patient that I once represented visited the emergency room after an assault. Among the tests and treatment he received at the hospital was a chest X-ray. By pure chance, the test results showed a small, cancerous nodule in this man’s lungs. The image was so clear that hospital staff actually noted the nodule on the patient’s chart.
The problem is that doctors neglected to tell him that he had cancer. They dismissed him from the hospital, and for five years, he was unaware of his condition while the cancer grew steadily throughout his body. By the time he developed symptoms and discovered that he had the disease, it was too late. Doctors had delayed his cancer diagnosis for so long that what had previously been a treatable condition with a high rate of survival had now become terminal.
Sadly, you find dismissive doctors in every type of facility – in emergency rooms, in primary care practices, and even in specialties like oncology. By ignoring and dismissing you, a doctor could be giving cancer time to grow and spread – perhaps with deadly results.
What You Can Do
You shouldn’t need guidelines on what you can do as a patient to prevent your doctor from misdiagnosing you. It’s not supposed to be your job to make sure your doctor does his or her job. However, there’s a reason this information has become the subject of numerous books and articles. If you ever find yourself ignored by a medical professional, knowing how to stand up for yourself could be the only way to get the care you deserve.
Here are some tips from patient advocate and physician Dr. Leana Wen, as reported by CNN, on what you can do if your doctor doesn’t listen to you.
- Tell your whole story – Concisely explain what happened, rather than just answering the doctor’s yes/no questions.
- Assert yourself in the doctor’s thought process – By asking what your doctor is thinking and sharing your thoughts, you can understand each other better.
- Participate in your physical exam – When you have questions, ask! Be an informed patient.
- Make a differential diagnosis together – Talk with your doctor about the list of possible explanations for your symptoms instead of making assumptions about what your condition is likely to be.
- Partner in the decision-making process –Work with your doctor to narrow down your list of potential diagnoses.
- Apply tests rationally – Know before you go what the purpose of a test is, as well as the benefits and risks.
- Use common sense – Have an idea of your likely diagnosis and the other possible diagnoses before you leave the doctor’s office
- Integrate diagnosis into the healing process – Find out from your doctor what to expect from your condition, your treatment options, and any warning signs that could indicate that what you’d decided is the most probably diagnosis isn’t actually correct.
Finally, if you try everything but can’t get your doctor to listen to your concerns, then it’s time to find a new doctor. Your health is the most important thing, and you have to do what’s best for you. If your doctor has already made a mistake and delayed your cancer diagnosis, then doing what’s best for you includes getting legal help as well as new medical care.