4 Toxic Ways Doctors Dismiss Their Patients' Concerns

If you encounter one of these scenarios at an appointment, here's how to advocate for yourself.
Patient advocates share some red flags that your doctor isn't the right fit for you.
The Good Brigade via Getty Images
Patient advocates share some red flags that your doctor isn't the right fit for you.

Doctors typically have their patients’ best interests at heart. However, there are also times when people leave appointments without any solutions or validation. Learning how to stand up for yourself at the doctor’s office is unfortunately a necessary skill — even though you may not give it much thought until you find yourself feeling misunderstood at your appointment.

When I initially sought help for my depression, my doctor at the time insisted on getting me on medications. In our very short appointment, he got me started on strong antidepressants. I was a teenager at the time, and I never thought to question his judgment. He didn’t warn me about the side effects before I started taking them, or the withdrawal I experienced when I abruptly stopped. This was my first time seeing a doctor who didn’t take the time to figure out what was best for me. And it certainly wouldn’t be my last.

Medgine Mathurin, a patient advocate based in Alberta, Canada, had a similar experience when she started feeling pain in her body.

“It began with wrist pain. Because it’s wrist pain, it could be anything else,” Mathurin told HuffPost. “They would send me back with, like, ‘You just need to get a brace. Maybe it’s just carpal tunnel.’ But the wrist pain migrated to my elbows, to my shoulders, to my whole body. One of the major challenges that I had was I would experience these symptoms at home, but it wouldn’t necessarily be active by the time I got my appointment with my doctor.”

She was eventually diagnosed with lupus, along with other autoimmune conditions.

Alexis Allen-Shorter, a patient advocate based in Maryland, has also seen this often in her work. Allen-Shorter coordinates with hospitals to help geriatric patients receive the best care possible.

“It’s making sure that patients are getting the appropriate care in the appropriate setting, and not just pushing them to a provider because they’re popular or a provider because they’re close by. It needs to be the right thing to do,” she told HuffPost.

Below are some dismissive scenarios that patient advocates commonly see, and some advice on what to do if this happens to you:

Not taking women’s pain seriously enough, particularly that of women of color

Mathurin said she has witnessed many cases where Black women’s pain was minimized.

“Race definitely plays a role, especially when it comes to even just like navigating pain tolerance,” Mathurin said. “I have a friend who’s also a patient advocate. She’s a sickle cell warrior. I remember she shared multiple stories of her having to go to the ER because of all the pain she was experiencing. But the doctors were dismissing the degree of pain she was under, assuming that she just had a higher degree of pain tolerance.”

Allen-Shorter agreed, saying she believes that race is the “No. 1 factor” that determines the quality and availability of care that patients receive, especially in underserved communities.

Prescribing diet and weight loss for health complaints

Recently, I was diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome. One of the symptoms of PCOS is an abnormal menstrual cycle. I had periods that lasted up to 10 weeks. During this time, my iron levels were extremely low, and I just generally felt unwell.

All my appointments with specialists took place over the phone because of the COVID-19 pandemic. I was excited when I was referred to a Black female endocrinologist, as I thought she would listen and understand better than anyone else. But when I mentioned my extremely long periods, her response was, “In order to manage the symptoms, you need to eat better and lose weight.”

While that advice would help with managing my hormones — which were the reason I was diagnosed with PCOS in the first place — I didn’t see how it would stop my bleeding.

This is a common initial path in the medical field. Research shows there’s a bias among medical professionals when it comes to weight. Many people with obesity visit the doctor for nonweight-related health concerns, only to be told that they just need to lose weight in order to alleviate their pain. This often leads to missed diagnoses, as evident by the many stories of people who were first dismissed by their doctors because of their weight and who then later discovered they had cancer or other health conditions.

Finding a physician who listens to your concerns and allows you to share your story is crucial in building a trusting relationship.
SDI Productions via Getty Images
Finding a physician who listens to your concerns and allows you to share your story is crucial in building a trusting relationship.

Doctors interrupting or not listening

“There were a lot of doctors that would interrupt me as I would try to explain my symptoms,” Mathurin said. “I’m now learning that’s a red flag because they’re not even listening to you. The sign of a good, patient-centered doctor is really to allow the patient to lead the conversation.”

Like Mathurin, I’ve had my fair share of doctors who didn’t listen. I once went to the emergency room because I thought I had pneumonia. I explained my symptoms to the doctor, who didn’t really pay me much attention. I eventually convinced him to do an X-ray on my lungs, which showed that I had pneumonia. If he’d listened to me initially, I wouldn’t have spent hours in the ER trying to convince various doctors that I really needed their help.

Not looking at a patient’s environment as a factor in their health

“I’ve heard a physician say, ‘If you continue to eat this way, you’re going to die,’ but not addressing the issues that are causing the patients to [live] this way. Is it food insecurity? Or they’re experiencing housing insecurity? Or ‘I live somewhere that’s not safe.’ Or, ‘I’m afraid to walk to the store to get fresh foods,’” Allen-Shorter said. “So sometimes, they’re not holistically treating patients.”

How to stand up for yourself as a patient if this happens to you

While doctors do want the best for their patients, there are reasons why patients may slip through the cracks. For starters, the ”health care system in general is really stressed right now. The doctors are under a lot of pressure,” said Paige Lennox, CEO of Canadian Health Advocates Inc.

Similarly, Allen-Shorter said some physicians may be out of touch with the communities they serve, and a big factor ― especially now during the pandemic ― is “physician burnout,” she said.

To combat these issues, Lennox and Allen-Shorter shared a few ways to stand up for yourself when you’re at the doctor’s office.

“Writing a history of what your signs and symptoms are ― or giving examples, sometimes even videotaping ― because they only see you for a small window of time,” Lennox said. “Bringing a third party in to your appointments can be really helpful. They can act as a second set of eyes. [Your loved one] can help you ask your questions and just sort of be a support for you.”

Allen-Shorter also said patients should know the names of the medications they are on, and what they’re being taken for.

“You need to know your correct diagnosis and the spelling of whatever it is that they’re saying that you have,” she said. “Advocate for your medical records. Look through your chart. Most physicians will document electronically. You have access to those records, look at your records, know what’s going on and ask questions.”

And if you get a bad vibe from an appointment, don’t hesitate to get a second opinion. The Health At Every Size community has a database of physicians you can browse, or read reviews from a variety of patients on Yelp or Zocdoc.

Your health matters ― and it’s important to find a provider who believes that, too.

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