Enjoy the Dreaded Office Visit

An amicable doctor and patient relationship can be a matter of life and death. 

HEALTH It is estimated that in the US, annual healthcare costs exceed two trillion dollars. With often uncertain fees, it is understandable why patients become intimidated when visiting physicians. With office visits focusing on timely efficiency, it is all too easy to leave with an expensive bill and no cure, let alone a diagnosis.

To some patients, doctors are incompetent. To others they are "gods." It has been said that the difference between God and a doctor is that God doesn't think he's a doctor. (Variations are used in different contexts.) Regardless of anyone's impression, if for no other reason (and there are many others), physicians earn patient respect because they stand at the threshold of life and death. How can relations, or at least impressions, be improved for a productive office visit?

Despite impressive credentials, medical care professionals are mortal beings. And, as is the case with most humans, doctors cannot read minds. Therefore meaningful two-way communication is vital.

Like anyone else, doctors can be pleasant, condescending, helpful or negligent. They can become defensive when their intelligence is challenged or may welcome the helpful insight from an informed patient. In other words, they have individual personalities.

There are practical things patients can do to alleviate much of the anxiety from office visits.

  1. Arrive on time, if not a bit early.
  2. Be pleasant.
  3. Provide short list of concerns.
  4. Ask questions about treatment.
  5. Cooperate with recommendations.
  6. Specify any prescribed or over-the-counter medications, vitamins or supplements. Sometimes symptoms the patient is complaining of results from these.

The brevity of office visits can result in mutual frustration when a patient brings up too many unrelated concerns. In all practicality, it may be best to limit medical complaints to two items, even if a longer list is provided for future follow-up or referral. Conversely, the professional must also recognize that seemingly unrelated symptoms may have a bearing on an accurate diagnosis.

The daily pain experienced by one patient may outweigh the risks of a particular procedure. In other cases, surgical options may offer marginal improvement with increased risk of additional suffering. Exercising informed consent, a patient may decline one medical procedure in favor of another. When this falls out the caregiver's area expertise, a referral to a competent specialist is often appreciated. When patients approach doctors respectfully and physicians empathetically consider not just a standard treatment plan but the patient's overall quality of life, a collaborative relationship can be formed.

Recognizing patient trepidation, a good doctor welcomes — on the phone or via email — further details from patients and other referred specialists between visits. This maximizes the quality of office visits and improves the accuracy of diagnostic treatment.

Tags: bedside manner, communication skills, doctor-patient relationship, personality differences, sociable


See 2010 article, Communication is key to every office visit, at LA Times.