Woman patient standing firm and respectfully speaking to a doctor in their office.

Respect and Power at the Doc’s Office

Feeling powerless at the doctor’s office is something many in the community can relate to. From being misunderstood, to being outright disrespected, self-advocacy when it comes to wellness can be draining and scary. That feeling can be compounded with uncertainty when uneven power dynamics are at play. I wanted to share a few tips that have helped me along the way, in times that I felt my appointments were not serving me well.

Looking for a doctor who listens

Note how you feel and vocalize this to your doctor. Have you ever had the experience of saying something to someone, only to feel like it went straight past them? This is especially frustrating when this happens with a healthcare professional. I can’t tell you how many times I have shared details about dealing with migraine with my doctor, only to have them gloss right over it. In these moments, I feel a mixture of upset and a little bewildered...after all, the reason I go to get the care I do is because I expect to be helped.

There have been times when I’ve met with a new doctor, and they would not even acknowledge that I'd said anything about migraine! I have gotten in the habit of repeating myself, and moving the conversation back to my needs. Politely reiterating points that I feel are not considered has helped me to advocate for my own care

The importance of expressing our needs

Be firm about your needs. Sometimes, it really is true that we know best. While having a trusting and productive relationship with our care providers means leaning on their expertise, sometimes we have to be firm in pushing for what we want and need. Once, I was prescribed medication for migraine that ended up making me very sick, things were worse than before I began taking it. I told my doctor that I could not be prescribed this medication any longer, and they agreed. We worked together to find an alternative for me to try. When I went to pick up my prescriptions the same day, I found out I had been prescribed the same old medication that I had spent so long talking to my doctor about not taking hours earlier. How frustrating!

I’d already spent hours advocating for myself, and I had to call the doctor up and get them to call in the right medication and then wait even longer to pick it up. While this was likely an honest mistake on the busy doctor’s part, it was also another indication of power imbalances (a few hours is no small inconvenience for working-class, chronically ill folks) at play and the need to be firm. I could have just taken that medication and assumed that I, the patient, was wrong. But I knew how I felt, and I knew I had to firmly set the record straight.

Keeping detailed and specific notes

Be specific and keep a migraine journal. I have learned over the years to get specific about what it is I am wanting to convey. I might not always have the answers, but keeping a journal of my symptoms, potential triggers, and moods has helped me to be more specific with my care professionals, which in turn helps them to help me. I remember so many appointments in college where I would go to my university health center and the best I could articulate was ‘I am always in pain.’ Not really much more or less, and it was frustrating to both myself and my doctor.

Part of self-advocacy is being attentive and prepared, and this can be developed over time. Now, I am prepared to update on changes and responses to medication. I keep an eye on what I am consuming. I am attentive to my body, which has not only helped in communicating with my doctor, but has helped me identify what I can do with my own habits and behaviors to accommodate my health.

Changing providers

Know when to go and get a new doctor. Even with good communication, attention to detail, and a commitment to firmness, sometimes we can’t mitigate the negative implications of a patient-doctor relationship that isn’t working. Knowing when it is time to say goodbye can make a huge difference in treatment. If things have been the same for a very long time, or if you feel like you can’t advocate for yourself honestly and openly, it may be time to consider new care.

Do you feel powerful or powerless when visiting the doctor? Why? Let's discuss in the comments!

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