Maybe your doctor dismisses you whenever you mention your frequent headaches. Or she's always got one hand on the doorknob when you try to talk to her about your fatigue. Or she rolls her eyes when you tell her that despite diet and exercise, you can't lose weight.
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You're not alone. In 2020, Twitter blew up with the hashtag #PatientsAreNotFaking in response to a video of a nurse making fun of a "patient." Tens of thousands of people tweeted back their stories of being blown off by doctors and misdiagnosed. More recently, here at LIVESTRONG.com, we took a poll on our Instagram, and 80 percent of responders said they've struggled to get a doctor to take a health concern seriously.
While it can happen to anyone, it seems particularly likely to happen to people assigned female at birth (AFAB). An April 2021 study in Journal of Pain found that even when people assigned male at birth (AMAB) and AFAB expressed the same amount of pain, the latter's pain was viewed as less intense and more likely to benefit from talk therapy rather than medication.
What's more, in a 2019 HealthyWomen survey, almost half of respondents said they didn't think their health care providers took their pain seriously.
"We hear all the time from patients, particularly female ones, that they feel that their doctor is not listening to them," says Caitlin Donovan, senior director of the National Patient Advocate Foundation. "They're told that issues are stress-related, or all in their heads, even though in their gut they know something physical is going on."
That doesn't necessarily mean you need to ditch your doctor and find a new one. "Sometimes it just boils down to poor communication — oftentimes, a physician simply forgetting to share the reasons why they are or are not doing something," says Annette Ticoras, MD, BCPA, internal medicine physician and owner of Guided Patient Services in Westerville, Ohio.
You may feel like your doctor is ignoring your complaints about back pain because she's hedging on having you get an MRI right away, for example. But in this situation, insurance may not cover it unless you do a course of physical therapy first, and in many cases, with some time and light stretching, this type of pain resolves on its own, Dr. Ticoras explains.
Here are some steps to take to ensure that you get the care you need.
1. Assume a Take-Charge Attitude
When you meet with your doctor, Dr. Ticoras recommends you first ask to go over your electronic health history with them to clean up your medical record.
"Oftentimes, there is so much information in a patient's medical chart that a physician will miss something or feel overwhelmed," she says.
Go over medications, and ask to remove any in your chart that you no longer take. If another medical condition has resolved, make sure that's reflected in the records too.
Now, bring the physician up to speed. Let's say you've been experiencing chronic back pain for months. Dr. Ticoras recommends you be as specific as possible about the pain, for example:
- Where exactly does it hurt?
- When does it hurt?
- What makes it feel better or worse?
- How does pain affect your daily functioning?
- What does it feel like (i.e., dull, throbbing, burning) and on a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate this pain?
You should also provide them a written list of treatments you've tried (including any suggestions your physician has made in the past) and whether or not they've worked. "It's a good idea to also recap past medical appointments — for example, reminding the doctor that at the last visit, they sent you to two months of PT, but it didn't help," Dr. Ticoras advises.
Sometimes, it also helps to keep a pain journal, adds Donovan. This can help your doctor know how much this condition limits your life — how it affects your mood, sleep, work and ability to do other daily activities.
"If a physician hears something very specific — for example, a patient is only able to sleep a couple hours at a time before they are woken up by pain — it really gives them clear, concise information to help them guide treatment decisions," she explains.
2. Bring an Extra Set of Eyes and Ears
If possible, Dr. Ticoras always recommends you bring along a family member or friend to your appointment.
"Sometimes, just the presence of someone else is enough to make a doctor sit up and take your concerns seriously," she says.
In addition, you may be anxious or upset during your visit, so it may be harder for you to retain information, she adds. Your loved one can jot down notes, and also ask questions if they think you're having trouble processing things.
Just make sure you bring the right person — if your mom interrupts or routinely talks over people, she may not be the best fit for this role, Dr. Ticoras adds.
3. Repeat Information Back to Your Doctor
Up to 80 percent of the medical information patients are told during office visits is forgotten immediately, and nearly half of the information retained is incorrect, according to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.
Before you leave the office, repeat everything the doctor has instructed you to do, in your own words. "This is known as the 'teach back' technique, which is effective because it helps you understand and comprehend what you need to do," says Kevin Fiscella, MD, MPH, professor of family medicine and public health sciences and associate director of the Rochester Center to Improve Communication in Health at the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York.
This also allows your doctor to correct you if you misunderstood the instructions.
4. Don’t Be Afraid to Get a Second Opinion
You may hesitate to do this, as you don't want to offend your doctor, but don't — people do it all the time, and a good doctor will understand, reassures Donovan.
It also may make a world of difference in your care. A 2017 Mayo Clinic study in the Journal of Evaluation and Clinical Practice, for example, found 21 percent of patients who sought a second opinion at the Mayo Clinic left with a completely new diagnosis, and 66 percent were deemed partly correct but refined or redefined by the second doctor.
You can ask your doctor for a recommendation on another provider to see, but if possible, make sure they practice at another medical institution, where there may be a different treatment philosophy, recommends Donovan. Have your first-opinion records sent ahead to the second doctor. After the visit, have the second doctor's office send a report to your primary doctor, so they're up to speed.
And as tempting as it may be, don't "fire" your first doctor until you've met with the second one and found that you're not only more comfortable with them, but that they have the bandwidth to take you on as a new patient, Dr. Ticoras stresses. This way, you won't find yourself left doctorless — and without a way to get medical care or medication refills — for months.