7 Tips for Establishing a Good Relationship With Your Doctor — and What to Do When It’s Not Working

Photo by Rhoda Baer for the National Cancer Institute.

Going to the doctor isn’t generally something many of us look forward to. A good relationship with your physician, however, is an important part of getting and staying healthy. Studies, including this one published in the journal PLOS One, show that a positive relationship with a physician can have a positive impact on a patient’s health.

Here are some tips for establishing a good relationship with your doctor from the start, and what to do if the relationship ever becomes less than ideal.

1. Schedule preventative visits

Some people only go to the doctor when they feel ill or have a concern. While an annual physical with your primary-care physician may not be high on your list of ways to have fun, the appointment is an opportunity to establish and maintain a relationship. A study by Consumer Reports found that a vast majority of doctors said that forming a long-term relationship with a primary-care physician is the most important thing a patient can do to obtain better medical care.

“You don’t want to bring a crisis to the first date, or your first appointment with a doctor,” says Dr. Lauren Oshman of NorthShore University HealthSystem.

Oshman also says that doctors often get more time for a preventative visit than they do for follow-up visits and doctors use that time to establish a good rapport with patients. “That time helps me to get to know my patient, and then when there is an issue, I can deal with it effectively and efficiently,” she says.

Doctors emphasize that seeing them when you do not feel sick is not only fine, it is important. Seventy percent of providers said that too many patients only come to see them when they are sick, according to a study by GE, in partnership with Cleveland Clinic and Ochsner Health System.

“As your physician, I’m happy you’re healthy and there is still value in making that connection,” explains Oshman, adding, “It’s also a chance to talk about healthy changes you can make, because we all have a few improvements we can make, which can prevent health issues in the future.”

2. Remember that different doesn’t mean bad

Don’t expect every appointment to be the same, in part because “our clinical screening guidelines change every year,” says Oshman. Also, different doctors have different approaches, as Oshman adds, “There’s a lot of room for art in medicine.”

“Patients will see different physicians approach physical exams differently based on their practice style,” Oshman says.

“There is such a big variety of practice styles that patients may need to search around to find a good physician,” she says.

Patients need to find a physician with a style that works best for them. “Finding a good match for you is about making sure you understand you doctor and the way in which he or she speaks, and that you can handle each other’s idiosyncrasies,” says Kerri Morris, cancer survivor and blogger at Cancer Is Not A Gift.

3. Be truthful with your medical team 

Trust and honesty are key pillars of the doctor-patient relationship, and always have been, as evidenced by the Hippocratic oath. They are also vital to ensuring patients get the treatment they need.

More than a quarter of those surveyed in the GE study admitted that they have lied to their doctor, which can mean that patients don’t get the care they need.

“Doctors can only help to the extent that they know what is going on,” says Oshman, who reassures patients that she and most other doctors also struggle to eat right and get enough exercise, two areas that people often aren’t honest about.

If you don’t feel like you can trust your doctor or cannot be fully honest with him or her, it’s time to find a new one.

“Remember that you’re the only one who truly knows you. Doctors cannot possibly understand everything about you. You’ve got to be an informant for them and let them know what’s happening,” says Morris.

Parents may be tempted to tell kids not to share everything with the pediatrician, but doing so may interfere with their care now and sets a bad precedent for them in the future. “You may not want to hear what your kid is saying, but I need to hear it so I can do my job,” says Dr. Ken Polin, pediatrician at Lurie Children’s Primary Care – Town & Country Pediatrics. “I tell children that it’s important that they help me help them get better.”

4. Ask questions

Questions can be key to getting good health care.

Before the appointment, make a list of questions and concerns that you want to address. “I’m happy to go through lists point by point. I’d rather patients do that than forget questions or be frustrated.”

At the end of each appointment, Polin says he, like many doctors, asks if there are questions. Turns out that physicians really do want you to ask if you are unclear on anything. In the Consumer Reports study, most said that it was “somewhat” or “very” helpful for patients to ask them questions.

5. Weigh your priorities — waiting may be worth it

Doctors do not need to be perfect to be a good fit. No one likes spending a long time in the waiting room, but prioritizing what is important to you may make it worthwhile. Lauren Glaser is the mom of a child with Hirschsprung disease, a condition that requires ongoing care. She adores her child’s surgeon in large part because of the time she takes to communicate with the family and to answer every single question thoroughly. The trade-off, however, is that the doctor is known to run late for appointments.

“We know that we are waiting because she’s giving everyone the same care that she gives us,” Glaser says. “She doesn’t cut us off, and we wouldn’t want her to have to cut off other families. We accept that some time in the waiting room is part of the package. It’s worth it.”

Patients need to know what their priorities are in the relationship and recognize that some trade-offs may be worth accepting.

Morris advises seeing it as a professional relationship, not a friendship. “A doctor doesn’t have to be the hugging type to be good,” says Morris. She says one of the best doctors she has had “was not warm and fuzzy. But he was a good listener, he followed up on what I was saying, and the communication was there.”

6. Be cautious when researching online

If you aren’t feeling well, it is tempting to look up your symptoms online. Doctors say they understand that, but ask patients to not try to definitively diagnose themselves.

“If you have a home repair, chances are you don’t do a ton research online and then present your plumber with options when he first walks into your house,” cautions Oshman, who adds, “We are professionals. Trust your doctor to think of everything the internet has thought of.”

Polin acknowledges that his patients are likely to turn to the internet and urges them to stick with websites that end in .edu or .gov, which are more likely to have been vetted and aren’t trying to sell any products.

7. Know when it’s time for a change

If the doctor-patient relationship is not working, it’s best to find a doctor that is better suited to you.

“If things aren’t working, don’t go through a lot of gnashing of teeth,” says Morris.

Oshman agrees, noting that it’s worth giving a doctor a second chance. “We all have bad days,” she says. Doctors are human, and have good and bad days like the rest of us. Morever, their jobs can be stressful. Oshman says that it can be tough to deliver bad news to one patient and look cheerful moments later with another.

“If given a second chance, you don’t feel that they’re listening or if you have a fundamental disagreement with their approach, we would rather you have a trusting relationship with another physician than stay in a relationship that isn’t working for you,” says Oshman.

 

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Shannan Younger

Shannan Younger is a writer living in the western suburbs of Chicago with her husband and teen daughter. Originally from Ohio, she received her undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Notre Dame. Her essays have been published in several anthologies and her work has been featured on a wide range of websites, from the Erma Bombeck Humor Writers Workshopto the BBC. She also blogs about parenting at Between Us Parents.

Shannan is the Illinois Champion Leader for Shot@Life, a campaign of the United Nations Foundation that supports vaccination efforts in developing countries to ensure life-saving vaccines reach the hardest to reach children. “Vaccines are one of the most effective ways to save the lives of children in developing countries and I’d love nothing more than to see diseases eradicated,” Shannan says. “We are so close to getting rid of polio for good!”