Haven't Been to the Doctor in a While? That's OK — Here's How to Move Forward

If you're anxious about going to the doctor for the first time in years, consider confiding in the receptionist when you book your appointment.
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Finally getting around to scheduling that annual exam, dental cleaning or medical screening test that was long put off because of COVID — or just because you've had a lot going on? If so, it's natural for it to feel a little uncomfortable.

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"When there is a public health crisis of such magnitude, all other medical conditions take a back seat, so if you've neglected your health recently, that's normal," says New York-based psychiatrist Yalda Safai, MD, MPH.

What's more, it's not uncommon to experience conflicting feelings around booking a long-overdue visit.

"Our guilt about not going or our anxiety about getting back into the swing of regular appointments is understandable," says Ottawa-based clinical psychologist Meagan Gallagher, C.Psych. "But at the end of the day it becomes a barrier to treatment or to [getting] preventive health services."

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It's possible to acknowledge those nerves — or even a sense of inner shame — without letting it get in the way of accessing care, though. Here are four strategies for making that happen.

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1. Figure Out the Source of Your Guilt

It's common to feel guilty about putting off appointments or going to the doctor for the first time in years. So first, think about where exactly that guilt is coming from.

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If you feel uneasy over what your health care provider might think of you for being MIA for so long, here's permission to let yourself off the hook. "Life happens, and every doctor is aware of that and they will be accommodating," Dr. Safai says.

Feeling guilty to yourself for neglecting your health, on the other hand, might call for a little more soul-searching.

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"Approach yourself with compassion, and get clear on your health-related values," Gallagher says.

While you can't change the fact that you've missed some appointments, you can commit to doing better from now on, if that's something you hope to do.

Gallagher recommends taking a value-based approach. Tell yourself something like: "I feel anxious about the appointment ​and​ I will go ahead with it because I value my health and I am deserving of care."

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2. Book Your Appointment

The sooner you call, the sooner you'll have the task off your plate so you can stop dreading it.

"Making the call is also choosing a behavior that is in line with your own goals, instead of avoiding, which will only make the anxiety stronger," says Gallagher.

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When you talk with the receptionist, simply say that you'd like to schedule an appointment for X reason or test — there's no need to apologize for or explain why you didn't come in sooner.

Consider booking the first appointment of the morning if you're concerned about spending time in a crowded waiting room. "It will likely be less busy and the chance of appointments running behind schedule is reduced," Gallagher says.

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You can also let the receptionist know why you want that first morning slot, if you feel like talking about it. If your provider knows that you're anxious about coming in, they can take that into consideration during the visit, Dr. Safai says.

3. Prep for Your Visit

Before heading in, jot down topics you'll want to discuss or questions you might have for your provider, Gallagher recommends. If your nerves start getting the better of you, you can look to your notes to keep the conversation on track.

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Relaxation strategies and distractions can be helpful too, especially while you're waiting. Bring along something to read, or plan to listen to music or a podcast to keep your brain occupied, so you're not focusing on your nerves.

If you find deep breathing helpful, now's a good time to try one of your go-to exercises. Even a fidget toy can be helpful, says Gallagher.

4. Handle Negative Comments With Boundaries

We've all become adept at setting personal boundaries during the course of the pandemic, so try that same strategy here. The fact is, you don't have to engage in conversations about why you haven't seen the doctor for an extended period. If a provider, receptionist or even a friend makes a shame-y comment (even if it was well-intended), just don't go there.

"It's perfectly fine to say, 'I appreciate your concern but I'm not going to discuss this,'" Gallagher recommends.

What's more, if the comment came from a provider, consider reevaluating your relationship with them — especially if they continue to press you.

"A doctor's office should be a safe space and no one should be shamed for missing appointments or skipping medications," Dr. Safai says. "If it happens again after you have expressed your concerns, maybe it's time to find another provider."

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Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.

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