Perhaps you’ve heard of white coat syndrome, when patients’ blood pressure spikes in a doctor’s office due to their anxiety. That raises the question of what else about you changes when you’re in the presence of your physician.
Consider how you communicate. When you’re at ease, you probably listen well, speak clearly and answer questions succinctly. But if you’re nervous, you might babble, crack lame jokes and fumble to retrieve even basic information from your agitated mind.
Jittery patients may not necessarily present their best self. And that, in turn, can test the patience of a physician trying to extract information from you and move on.
There’s an obvious solution: Make yourself memorable (in a positive way) when you see your doctor. Certain behaviors endear patients to their medical provider—and can lead to better care.
For starters, come prepared. If you’re dealing with a health issue, draft a one-page summary of when you first noticed it, what steps you’ve taken to address it and the results to date.
“Most doctors start by asking why you’re here today,” said Cindi Gatton, principal at Pathfinder Patient Advocacy Group in Atlanta. “By building a timeline—particularly if you have a complicated history—and showing them a synopsis of the timeline, it’s like giving them a baby medical chart.”
Doctors will glance at your written summary and surely ask, “Can I keep this?” Say yes (you already made a copy for yourself, of course) and you’re off and running.
If you’re struggling to describe a complex or multifaceted ailment, stop every so often and ask, “Doc, I may not be explaining this well. Can you help me understand what you’re hearing?”
“Few if any patients ask that,” Gatton said. “It forces the physician to translate what they’re hearing in medical-speak back to you in plain English. You’re either going to have the sense you’re on the same page, or the doctor missed something entirely that you wanted to communicate.”
Curious patients may have conducted online research to learn about their condition. Or maybe they’ve seen an urgent-care doctor and received a diagnosis.
Should you cite your findings or discuss a prior provider’s diagnosis?
“I counsel patients not to start by saying, ‘I think I know what’s wrong with me,’” Gatton said. “Patients may have read far more from Dr. Google about their condition than the doctor has. But that doesn’t mean you should bring that up in your initial conversation.”
Instead, she suggests that you begin by saying, “I’m here to get your creative input.” This encourages the physician to think outside the box.
On the other hand, some doctors want to hear about your advance legwork. That’s especially true if they prize collaboration and view their relationship with you as a true partnership.
“Most people assume that the patient bringing up something on the internet is annoying to the doctor,” said Barry Rotman, an internist who runs a concierge practice in Walnut Creek, Calif. “But I embrace that. I view it as a positive. It shows that they’re trying to own their health care. And I’ll tell them I learn a lot from them, even if all of it is not true.”
The ability to converse in an engaging manner can help you stand out and garner more attention from an appreciative doctor. Even if you’re nervous, strive to give concise answers to questions. Number your points (“It manifests itself in three ways…”). And if you share an anecdote, specify a time, place and activity—and state your reason for telling the story.
Physicians are trained to treat every patient equally. But they’re human, and they may play favorites.
“Definitely look for ways to personalize the relationship,” said Ilene Corina, founder and president of Pulse Center for Patient Safety Education & Advocacy in Wantagh, N.Y. “Look around the office and try to make connections” between the doctor’s interests and yours. If you see a collection of marathon lanyards hanging on the wall, for example, mention that you run marathons too.
When Corina met with her cardiologist for the first time, she said in passing that her son was in the Peace Corps. The doctor’s face lit up as he recalled his daughter’s experience in the Peace Corps.
“We spent 20 minutes talking about that,” she said. “The next visit, he was very nice. There’s never a way to know if that 20-minute conversation helped me get better care because he’s probably nice with everybody. But it didn’t hurt.”