Seeing a physician in a healthcare environment is an anxious and somewhat intimidating time for many patients. It’s easy for physicians to forget this as we go about our daily routines. From the doctor’s perspective, our time slots are increasingly squeezed and occupied by administrative duties. Seeing patients is what we were trained to do, we all want to do a great job, but the current system has so many other burdensome demands taking us away from patient care. From the patient perspective, they may have been waiting all day (or maybe even weeks) for those precious few minutes they have with the physician. It’s therefore very important all their concerns are addressed in that limited time. Now, a lot of doctors may not want to hear me say this (but it comes from the heart with only good intentions), but the more I see of everyday clinical medicine, the more the truth hits me that it’s the really pushy patients and families, who end up getting the best possible healthcare. Abraham Lincoln once said: “Things may come to those who wait, but only those things left behind by those who hustle”. That’s one of my favorite quotes from the great man, and could be relevant to multiple different areas of life. Applied to healthcare however, I’d like to think it means that if you have the attitude of taking a back seat and expecting you will command the premium attention of the physician or hospital (especially for a difficult issue), you may sadly be mistaken. Physicians are hard-working and caring professionals, but they are also human and frequently fall victim to the system they are in. So here are 3 ways I would advise any patient or family to get pushy with their doctor, if they think their problems are not being adequately addressed:
1. Don’t let the visit end abruptly if you are not satisfied
Your doctor may only have a several minute time slot with you, either in the clinic or hospital. They will usually be running hopelessly behind schedule due to the unpredictable nature of medicine. Of course, your physician has to be focused, but if you still have important questions or concerns, make that clear. This may not be the easiest thing to do and may even feel a bit confrontational, but this is your health on the line and nothing could be more important! Even a simple statement like: “Dr, I have more questions and am very concerned about ___ “. No physician worth his or her salt should ever be able to continue walking out of the room upon hearing that. If necessary, say you would like another appointment or have them come back later in the day (here’s another hint: if you say “you seem like you are in a hurry/very busy” to any doctor in a jovial or friendly way, it will certainly not make them feel good about the interaction—but is well within your rights to communicate if that’s what you perceive).
2. Be blunt about the worst case scenario
If there’s a particular concern about your illness, voice it clearly. This could be a story about a relative who had a terrible thing happen to them with similar symptoms, or anything else you may have read. Physicians are trained in any case to think about worst case scenarios, but a gentle reminder is never amiss. Medicine is full of zebras and I’ve lost count of the number of times either myself or a colleague has been considering a broad differential, and has been pushed one particular way by a patient or family member’s inclination—which has ended up being spot on! Every physician knows this happens all the time, even if they don’t admit it. It’s a fact of modern healthcare with the widespread dissemination and availability of medical information.
3. Play the Doctor card
This actually follows on nicely from the above point, but have other physicians or even family or friends who are in healthcare, suggested a diagnosis or treatment to you? If so, make sure you tell the doctor that the suggestion has come from another medical professional. Physicians all have a tremendous amount of knowledge, but nobody is a know-it-all sage, especially these days with unbelievably new amounts of medical research hitting us every day. I’m not suggesting that you ever make things up, but if you have heard advice from a physician and think they are right about what needs to be done, you should tell your doctor that too. Personally, I always accompany family and friends to physician appointments if they ever need me to, and although many of my experiences doing this are in a completely different healthcare system (the United Kingdom) where things can often seem more of a struggle to get things done quickly, I don’t think the scenarios are all that different in the US (albeit for different reasons). Physicians will always be on their toes more if they know another doctor or medical professional is present, or going to be fed back information. Sorry, that’s just a natural fact, and would apply in any profession.
This article is not meant to discredit physicians in any way—how could it? I am a doctor too, and immensely honored to be a member of the profession. Neither is it meant to advocate for patients being pushy in the sense of being “in your face” or rude. It’s simply about what Abraham Lincoln was getting at in the above quote. To get anywhere and ensure that you are getting only the very best attention, you need to hustle for yourself. For physicians, we are here to serve. It’s not about ego or wanting to do all the talking ourselves. For patients, your health is simply too important for anything other than making sure your concerns and worries are addressed adequately and courteously by those who are supposed to do so. If you are shy, get a family member who will advocate for you. Nobody will ever care about your health more than you. And remember, this doesn’t just apply to your interactions with physicians. If you are upset with anything else to do with your healthcare experience and feel it’s subpar, make phone calls and write letters! It’s folks who do this that often end up shaking up the system too and bringing about positive change. So absolutely, whenever you need to, get pushy and don’t make any apologies for it.
Suneel Dhand is a physician, author and speaker. He is Co-Founder at DocsDox and Founder at DocSpeak. Learn more about him here.