Medical school interviewers often ask prospective candidates what makes a good doctor. Listening, compassion, knowledge, teamwork… there are plentiful buzzwords that most of us could supply. As always, the truth is more complex than a list of attributes.
But what makes a good patient? After all, all of us (doctors included) will find ourselves a patient at some stage in our lives. And when we are a patient, we play an important part alongside our doctor in the to-and-fro role play that leads to diagnosis and treatment.
So, next time you find yourself playing the role of patient, here are some tips to help you reach a happy ending.
- Be prepared
If you’re a cub scout, this may mean carrying a pen-knife and a woggle. If you go to the doctors, please spend a few minutes thinking about what information your doctor might need. If your symptoms have been going on for years, think in advance about the important dates, or sketch out a timeline in your mind. If your symptoms come and go, consider keeping a diary. If you have symptoms that you can’t describe yourself, bring someone with you who can. If you’re attending a hospital appointment remember that they won’t necessarily have all your health records and bring what you have. If you’re taking medication, know the names and doses, or bring a list.
- Be truthful
Sherlock Holmes regarded medicine and detective work as allied professions. In his words, when talking to a dishonest client, “only a patient who has an object in deceiving his surgeon would conceal the facts of his case”. In both detective work and medicine, it is often difficult to disentangle a crucial clue from a red herring. That is your doctor’s job, but you can make it easier by giving them accurate information to work with. To quote Holmes again – “I am accustomed to have mystery at one end of my cases, but to have it at both ends is too confusing”.
- Be open minded
You may have an idea of what is wrong with you and what needs to be done. You (and Dr Google) may be right, and you may not be – the truth is out there, but so are plenty of lies. Give the doctor in front of you the benefit of the doubt, and listen with an open mind. And demand that they offer you the same open mind in return. Doctors can be wrong, but so can patients. There should be give and take on both sides.
- Be polite
It shouldn’t need saying, and yet it does. Shouting at your doctor won’t get them on your side.
- Be punctual
There’s nothing less helpful than when someone turns up 30 minutes late for a 30 minute appointment. Come on time. If your doctor is late, it won’t be on purpose.
- Be organised
Your doctor may well suggest some tests – don’t forget to go to them. Don’t forget to go back for your follow up appointment. If you change address or phone number, let your doctor know. If you decide on a treatment, don’t forget to take the tablets. It’s common sense. And if you make a deliberate decision not to get the tests, or to take the tablets, please ‘fess up (see point 2).
- Be proactive
If you have tests, and don’t hear results, get in touch to find out why. If the test hasn’t happened, get in touch to find out why. If your follow up appointment hasn’t come through, get in touch to find out why. Probably, someone else is on the case. But they might not be. You’re the one with the strongest interest in your own health, so take some responsibility for it.
- Be prepared to shop around…
If you don’t get on with your doctor, don’t suffer in silence. Ask to see someone else. The chances are, if you’re not satisfied, they’re not enjoying the relationship either. They probably won’t be offended, and if they are offended they are grown up enough to deal with it. If your doctor doesn’t seem expert in your particular problem, find yourself someone who is. There are plenty more fish in the hospital.
- … a bit
If your first doctor doesn’t work out for you, try a second. If the second doesn’t work out, try a third. But by the time you’re on your seventh, the chances of a perfect outcome are getting slimmer. There’s a law of diminishing returns, and there’s a point when each new opinion will confuse matters rather than clarify them. There comes a time when you need to pick your partner.
- Be in it for the long haul
If you’re lucky, your visit to the doctors might be a one-off. But for many people with chronic conditions, visiting a doctor is a repeating event, occurring month after month, or year after year. It’s a relationship that develops into more than a transactional one, for both parties involved. So invest in it and make it count.