Being a patient is one of the hardest things a person will ever do. It is nerve-wracking, filled with uncertainty, frustrating, eats up hours of your life in waiting rooms, at times humiliating, painful, and always uncomfortable. The fact that when you are a patient your whole life is literally at stake, doesn’t help to make the experience more tolerable. There is one thing that can, however, and that is the right doctor.
I was a patient before I was weaned off bottles, so I’ve had my share of doctors, and some of them have been my heroes. I am happy to report that right now I am working with one of my heroes, and it feels so good. Recently, however, I’ve seen a few doctors that reminded me just how lucky I am to have found my rheumatologist. The experience with these practitioners was so starkly different I began to put some thought into what the differences were. It wasn’t the level of competence of the MD’s themselves- they were all highly competent. The differences were in how I felt, and how I was treated during my visits. I understand more completely now just how important it is to fully vet your rheumatologist if you want to have a good experience.
A good start us by asking yourself a few questions.
Do I get timely responses?
There is nothing more nerve-wracking than waiting for the results for a test or lab result. And nothing more frustrating than calling a doctor after waiting and hearing the results have been in for awhile, but they never bothered to call you with them. I truly appreciate a personal phone call follow up from my nurse, and now I realize how important this is. Often, it gives me the opportunity to follow up with any questions that I had after my last visit, and to give my doctor an update about any changes that we made during my visit.
Am I allowed to have a voice?
The average doctor’s visit lasts about 15 minutes. This doesn’t leave much time to talk about the many, many troubling aspects of living with chronic pain/disease. It is important to know that your doctor values your input and is committed to answering any and all questions you may have, despite time constraints. If your doctor ever seems put out by your needs, shuts you down, personally, intimidates you, or doesn’t seem familiar with your case despite several visits, you really should start doctor shopping. There is nothing worse than feeling put down or put off by your doctor, who literally has your life in his hands. Make sure you have a person to back you up during your visit if you feel this is happening to you, and always make sure someone is addressing all your questions before you leave an appointment, especially when any big changes are being made to your health care plan.
Do I walk away hopeful?
When I was in college I worked with the first doctor who ever told me he was going to do everything he could to get me into remission. Every time I left his office I felt like skipping. Most practitioners are so worried about giving people false hope they forget what hopeful statements can do for a person’s sense of well-being even in the face of extreme challenge. A good doctor will make you feel good, even when your body is screaming at you.
How do the gatekeepers treat me?
The experience at a doctor’s office begins with the front desk and ends with the billing department. In between, you will encounter medical assistants, nurses, and lab specialists. Every one of these people will influence how you feel about your experience. Are they interested in you? Do they introduce themselves? Do they make sure you feel comfortable? Do they look you in the eye and smile? Do they know you by name after you’ve come in for a few visits? Are they cheerful? Are they efficient? A good doctor knows that these elements are integral in a positive patient experience and will do the work to ensure that his/her team is providing the best possible experience for patients.
Do I feel comfortable calling the office when a new symptom or concern comes up?
When I was a kid, my rheumatologist wanted my Mom to call him whenever an unusual symptom happened because they would most likely be related to the JRA. These days, many doctors compartmentalize. The last rheumatologist I had would send me to specialists every chance he could. Rash on my joints? Go to a dermatologist. Stomach ache? See a GI doctor. I ended up only going to him when I absolutely had to and wasn’t as open or as honest with him. Instead, I felt defensive when I had to report a side effect or new issue and discouraged when he didn’t seem interested. These days, my rheumatologist is clear that she wants to know what is going on and will address all issues to the best of her ability before referring me to someone else.
Is my doctor aware of new research developments?
I love being able to hear about new ideas and options that are being tested for RA. I especially love when my doctor is excited about these things too and can tell me her opinion about them.
Am I honest with my doctor?
When I have said no to this question it is always about trust. Trust that my doctor will handle what I tell her with grace, and not disdain, judgment, or disbelief. I’ve had all of these reactions at one time or another and when a doctor dismisses what I have to say, or responds in a negative way, I shut down. This isn’t a recipe for a good relationship, and your relationship with your doctor is one of the most important relationships you’ll ever have, so paying attention to whether it is serving your needs or not is vital.
The most important question you should ask yourself is this one: Do I feel Cared For? The ideal experience with your rheumatologist should make you feel cared for from start to finish. It may take time and effort to reach this ideal, it’s worth it.