The average doctor’s visit lasts just 15 minutes — and physicians interrupt us after only 11 seconds, research shows. Here, top advocates share simple ways to get the time, care, and attention you deserve.
Be a ‘Mama Bear’
Doctors often dismiss or listen less well to women, studies reveal. That’s why it’s important to validate your pain or symptoms, says Pamela Gallin, MD, patient advocate and clinical professor of ophthalmology in pediatrics at NY Presbyterian-Columbia. “Most women discount physical discomfort or emotional lack of wellbeing — we low-ball ourselves because we’re so busy taking care of everyone else.”
To that, she says: If it bothers you, it’s real. “I often hear what the patient is most worried about as the door is closing behind them because they were afraid to ask until the end.”
“For example, if you have thyroid issues, sluggishness may be an obvious symptom, but if the front of your leg hurts and has dry skin, you wouldn’t know that can be related,” she says. “Patients often say, ‘I thought I was nuts,’ or ‘I thought I was exaggerating’.”
At your next doctor’s visit, instead of saying, ‘it might seem small to you, but…’ flip that on its head, and say, “I want you to know that X is bothering me and it’s not a small thing. Be a mama bear for yourself.”
Jot it Down
A doctor’s visit is anxiety-provoking for everyone, says Dr. Gallin. “I’m a patient, too, and my mind often goes blank. As soon as we walk into the office, our blood pressure goes up and it’s hard to think straight,” she explains, revealing that because doctors have a limited amount of time with patients, the best way to stop them is to have a list of concerns and questions, such as “I’m concerned the side effects of X medication are going to cause Y.” “When you write it down beforehand, it helps you crystallize your thoughts, and when you show them your list, they’ll answer your questions.” The question we often forget to ask: How do I ask questions after the visit? “Every office is different —some doctors only use email, others have hours when you can call. They won’t volunteer this information, so you have to ask.”
Tap Your Timeline
Doctors are taught to think linearly and put symptoms in a sequence — X happened, then Y and Z. But patients naturally tend to jump around when telling our story, says Cindi Gatton founder, principal and advocate of Pathfinder Patient Advocacy Group®, in Atlanta.. “Just step back and create a timeline of events, such as, ‘I noticed in April, when I walked uphill, I couldn’t catch my breath; in May, I started taking a new supplement’.” Then let your doctor ask questions like, “When you took X supplement, what happened’?” This gives your doctor an easy-to-follow “map” to help him diagnose and treat you.
Share Energy Drains
It’s no secret that women are experiencing epic levels of tiredness. But it’s often frustratingly difficult to express exactly how you’re feeling. “Fatigue is like smoke in the room: it’s very difficult to measure,” says Dr. Gattin. “People don’t think of it like pain, but it can be just as useful when it comes to revealing underlying problems from fibromyalgia to Lyme disease.” Instead of simply telling your doctor, “I’m tired,” she advises focusing on four specific points: Has there been a change in when you’re fatigued? Is there anything that reverses it? Does it ever go away? Is it expanding? “Also tell your doctor if there’s anything that comes with it, like, ‘I have a headache,’ ‘I don’t want to eat’,’ or ‘It takes me longer to do X task.’ Everyone’s ‘tired’ is different, so be sure to share your experience.”
Trust Your Gut
We all know when someone isn’t really hearing us, observes Lisa Sanders, MD. associate professor of internal medicine and education at Yale School of Medicine.
“They may be listening but not sending out key communication signals, such as no eye contact or they be facing away from you,” she says. “Every patient should be empowered to say, ‘I just don’t feel like you’re hearing me’.” The vast majority of doctors will pay attention when they hear you say that because they don’t want to give you the impression that they’re not listening, she promises. “If you come in with a complicated or vague problem like fatigue, just ask, ‘What else do you think it might be’?.” At the very least, she says, this simple question will trigger him or her to think about different potential causes.
This article originally appeared in our print magazine, Cure Your Tiredness.