Advocating For Yourself Even When Your Doctor Doesn't

Many of us (myself included) expect our health care providers to have our best interest at heart. Don't all doctors take the hippocratic oath? Isn't nursing founded on caring for and nurturing people?

I know I expect my doctor to be my advocate and to have my best interest in mind when working with me.

But what happens when your doctor or health care provider doesn't treat you well? What do you do when your doctor won't listen to you or belittles you? Perhaps less obvious but still detrimental, what happens when they place more value on their opinion of what they think your health should look like than your opinion of what you want your health to look like?

Have you ever felt that little voice say "watch out" or "no" when you are at an appointment with your doctor? Have you ever felt that something just isn't right even if you can't articulate what that is yet?

I had a patient in my office recently who was having a new set of symptoms. She had just come from her primary doctor's office asking for help to identify what might be going on with her health. She told me her doctor referred to her symptom as disgusting and treated her with disregard. The frustration in my patient's voice as she described her experience with her primary doctor was obvious, as was her embarrassment over her symptoms that now she feared were disgusting and abnormal.

Whether or not we like to admit it, there is a definite power dynamic inherent in the doctor/patient relationship. Some doctors remember this when they enter the exam room. Others do not. Some patients understand this, others may not realize it.

Because doctors are in a position of power, sometimes it's difficult as patients to stand up to them when it's necessary. Sometimes it's scary to say, "I don't agree" or "I don't feel you are hearing me". Sometimes it feels especially scary to advocate for yourself when you have the something isn't right with this doctor feeling but you haven't figured out what feels wrong yet.

It is my belief that doctors (and other health care providers) need to recognize that they are in a position of power and do what they can to shift that dynamic to one of partnership.

How much easier would it be to share about your health goals, concerns or beliefs if you were approached by your doctor like a partner instead of a child or student? While some doctors do this well, others either are clueless, don't care, are too busy to bother, or feel superior and that they should be in power.

You are not alone if you have found yourself in the position of being a patient with a doctor who treats you, either explicitly or implicitly, like you are inferior. And there are some things you can do to advocate for yourself.

1. Referrals by word of mouth are the best kind.

When you are looking for a health care provider, ask around. Ask people you like and respect who they like. Who have they gone to? What do they like about this provider? How have they been treated? Has their voice been heard? I think many of us can say we have found some of our favorite health care providers by asking our friends who they enjoy seeing.

2. Pay attention to your inner warnings.

That little voice that says something isn't right?Listen. The way your body tenses up when you meet that new doctor? Listen. Many times our intuition and our bodies know truth before it comes into our consciousness. If you feel like something isn't right, it isn't. Be willing to listen to this amazingly accurate internal barometer and you will not be disappointed.

Sometimes this comes into play when you just know that something is wrong with your health and your doctor tells you everything is fine. It is in these moments when you have the knowing that you need to stand up and find someone who will listen. You know your body better than anyone else.

3. Remember that you have options and be willing to take action.

Once you have decided that this doctor or health care provider isn't working for you for one reason or another, it's time to take action. If this is a doctor that you generally like but feel like there may be a misunderstanding, you can talk to them about your concerns. However, this option may not be a common one because if the reason you are unhappy is that he/she is treating you poorly, then chances are they won't listen to you anyway. If you do decide that this is a partnership worth pursuing, then I definitely encourage you to speak up. Some providers are unaware that you are upset or that your needs are not being met and someof them would be more than happy to hear your concerns.

Another option is to simply leave. Don't make another appointment. Don't go back. And if it's really needed, stand up and walk out of your appointment. It's ok and it's within your right. You are hiring these doctors to work with you and if they don't meet your needs, fire them.

Additionally, you can write a letter of concern. You can find out who the administrator of the clinic or hospital is and write them a letter. Feel free to write it anonymous if that feels safer to you. Some administrators really value feedback from patients/clients and deal with grievances seriously. Some models of health care are moving towards reimbursement based on patient satisfaction levels---meaning if you aren't happy with your care, your doctor doesn't get paid or gets paid at a lesser rate. So, fill out that survey**, write that letter, meet with the administrator. Chances are, if you are feeling that way, many others are as well and they may be too scared to speak up.

Speaking up requires courage. But most of the time, it's worth it. You deserve to be healthy and to have a health care partner by your side who helps you reach your health goals in ways that are meaningful to you. Many of us health care providers are deeply honored to do so.



I'd love to hear from you in the comments: what about you? How has your experience been advocating for yourself? Have you heard that voice and listened? Or ignored it? How have you advocated (or not advocated) for yourself and how did it turn out?

**As a side note, I'd love to encourage you to fill out the surveys even if you are very happy with your service, because health care providers enjoy hearing that their hard work is making a difference for you **

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