Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Don't Settle for a Bad Doctor

So I switched jobs recently, and with that, I had to switch health insurance, and therefore had to get a new doctor (we'll address the nightmarish thing that is United States health care and insurance systems in a separate post, entitled "Don't You See how INSANE This Is?"). Now, I picked two doctors at the same time (my primary care doctor and my OB-GYN) a little randomly, as you do in situations like this -- they were both women of color who were currently taking new patients, so I signed up, since that has been a formula that has worked for me in the past. It worked out great with the OB-GYN: we exchanged friendly emails before I met her, I went in for my appointment and she was nice, asked all the right questions, answered all of mine, and I went home happy.

My primary care doctor was another story. When I first met her, she seemed kind of cold to me, but I thought that maybe I was just grumpy. The second time I met her, she gave me a blank, skeptical look when I described my symptoms, didn't ask me many questions, then turned to her computer and said "You can go" when she was done with me, which made me feel snubbed and uncomfortable. But worse, it made me hesitant to go to the doctor the next time, because I thought she would roll her eyes and scoff at me. Turned out that I had the swine flu. I recovered, thanks for asking after two weeks of feeling horrible, a week of feeling slightly less horrible, and two more weeks of a cough. That taught me a lesson: Don't settle for a bad doctor.

Now, this is not to malign the medical profession. There are lots of fantastic doctors out there, who will listen to you, diagnose you well, and genuinely care about how you're feeling, both physically and mentally. But if you have had the bad luck to get one of the bad ones, or one who isn't bad, but just bad for you, you can and should make a change, and it will make such a difference when you do.

I understand all of the excuses for sticking with a doctor that you don't like, because I used many of them. It's complicated to change, it's a family friend, you already know the way to the office and don't want to switch, you don't want to deal with that conversation about your medical history all over again. But the worst excuse was "Maybe it's all in my head." Don't let that be the excuse to keep you stuck with a doctor that you don't like and feel uncomfortable with, because even if it IS all in your head, that doesn't matter. What matters is that the doctor makes you uncomfortable, and therefore you're not going to be as honest with her, or you're going to avoid making an appointment with him when you need a new prescription, or you're in pain, or get dizzy for no reason, or you feel that lump. No one needs a doctor that makes her feel anxious, ashamed, or violated, and forcing yourself to deal with that is bad for both your physical and mental health.

Finding a new doctor really isn't as scary as it seems, but first, you need to know what you do and don't like in a doctor. I like doctors that are warm, friendly, and ask lots of questions, some people may like doctors who are businesslike and direct; know what you like, and then you can ask around for the doctor that will be the best for you. Also, many doctors say that they're not taking new patients, but they often will if you're a friend or family member of a current patient. Appeal to all of your friends and co-workers for doctors that they have and like, find out if their doctor seems like he's your kind of doctor, and then contact the doctor that sounds the best directly to say that your friend loves him, and can you please switch to his practice.

It is definitely more complicated in some situations -- you live in a small town and there are few doctors, or you don't have health insurance and so go to a clinic, or this is the only doctor in your area that treats your special condition. Even then, though, do what you can: go to one of the few other doctors when your doctor is on vacation to test them out and see if you can switch, take down the names of the doctors that you do and don't like at the clinic, and find out when the doctors work so that you can try to only go on the good doctor days and times, ask for second opinions. Not everyone is going to get a doctor that delights you, or makes you want to dance around in your underwear, but it is very possible to find a doctor that treats you well, and isn't that the goal?

My story ends happily: after going to my bad doctor at the beginning of the swine flu (where she tested me for strep, sent me away, and then sent me a snippy email telling me that I didn't have strep but nothing else), I ended up at urgent care later on that week, and saw a doctor that I immediately liked a million times better than mine. She asked questions, seemed concerned, gave me prescriptions and advice, and you know what? I completely listened to her advice, because I liked and respected her, and did just what she told me. I called the next week to see if I could switch to her as my primary care doctor, and it was as easy as that (even though her website said that she wasn't accepting new patients). This week I went in to see her, and she was asking me lots of those first visit questions, and then said "I'm sorry, I'm asking so many questions!" I said, with a big smile "That's okay, I like a doctor who asks a lot of questions."

So next time you think to yourself that you can settle for a bad doctor, and you should just get over it that your doctor didn't call you back when you called in a panic post surgery (this happened to me), or blamed you for your late term miscarriage (this happened to a friend of mine), or just makes you feel rushed and anxious, just stop, think about how your doctor should help to heal you, not damage you more, and don't settle.

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