Gary McClain, PhD, is a therapist who specializes in helping clients deal with the emotional impact of chronic and life-threatening illnesses.
Len has not been experiencing any progress with his current treatment regimen. In fact, he is feeling worse. His physician decided it was time for Len to undergo a procedure which she does not perform.
Len’s physician referred him to a specialist who not only performs this procedure, but is considered one of the best. She assured Len that he would be in good hands with this physician. Len was so looking forward to meeting this specialist, and getting his procedure scheduled, that he didn’t really pay much attention when his doctor added, “He’s the best, be assured of that. But don’t expect a lot of warm fuzzies from him.”
However, when Len met this specialist, her words came back to him. Len had done some of his own research online to learn more about both the procedure and the physician who would be performing it. His research left him with a few questions, which he was eager to discuss with the doctor. He kept his list to a minimum, knowing time would be limited.
Failure to communicate
At the specialist’s office, Len was ushered into an examination room, where he waited about thirty minutes. Finally, the physician walked in and quickly introduced himself. Len said, “It’s great to meet you. I just wanted to ask you a few questions while I am here.”
The physician held up his hand. “I’m not answering any questions. I will do a quick exam and then you can schedule the procedure with my office staff.”
“But I just wanted to ask …”
“No questions,” the doctor repeated. “Your physician must have explained why you needed to be here. If you don’t want the procedure, you don’t have to have it.”
From there, he did a brief exam and then walked out of the room with a quick, “See you later.”
Len felt frustrated and disrespected. That evening, he talked to his wife about what had happened. “I know he is good. I guess that’s why he feels like he doesn’t have to bother with what he obviously thinks would be stupid questions. But this is a major procedure he is going to be doing on me. Don’t I have a right to establish some kind of comfort level with him?”
“Apparently not,” his wife answered. “It sounds like he expects you to already be sold on the procedure and on him. And he doesn’t think he should have to explain anything to you.”
“I don’t know if I’m comfortable with that,” Len answered.
Has a physician ever spoken to you that way? I often hear similar stories from my clients. They may chalk it up to the doctor just being too busy. If not arrogant. Or unconcerned about their patients’ emotional well-being. Or, as some clients have expressed, physicians might sometimes want to avoid having to be completely honest with their patients.
Patients with doctors who won’t answer their questions are essentially left with the same options Len was left with: proceed or find someone else. Or, in simpler terms, deal or don’t deal.
Here are some ideas for what to do if your doctor won’t answer your questions:
Be assertive. Let your doctor know that you have a few questions that only he or she can answer. In a gentle, non-confrontational manner, say something like, “I know you are busy and you probably get tired of answering the same questions, but I have a couple of questions about the procedure that would help me a lot in deciding whether to have it or not.” And then ask the first question. This approach isn’t guaranteed to work. The doctor may still refuse. But it’s worth a try.
Ask for information sources. If he or she is too busy to answer your questions, ask if you can be referred to a trustworthy resource to get your questions answered. Your doctor may have a website or some printed information that could be helpful.
Do more research on your own. If this is a procedure or treatment you are motivated to undergo, then it is worth doing more information-gathering on your own. Google it, or check out medical information sites you trust. You might also go back to your referring physician and ask more questions. If your doctor recommended this procedure or treatment to you, he or she may also have more information available.
Move forward, based on reputation. As I said earlier, deal or don’t deal. My clients who have faced this situation with their doctors often decided that the physician is indeed qualified, based on what they have read or heard about him or her, and that this is a procedure or treatment that is right for them. And so they committed to moving forward with that physician, even though it meant some discomfort, if not frustration, at the interpersonal level. They reminded themselves that healthcare professionals are not necessarily “people people,” even if their work is with people.
Find another provider. You may decide you need to work with someone with whom you can communicate. Who at least makes an effort to adequately answer your questions, even if their bedside manner isn’t the best. Or you may need to work with someone who also exudes warmth and compassion. That’s your choice. If you want to change doctors, then your next step is to continue to do your research and find another provider who comes closer to your ideal. Your referring physician may have some additional resources for you to consider. However, you may also discover that Dr. Withholding is the only game in town.
But keep in mind … your relationship with your physician is a professional relationship. He or she is primarily there to provide excellent medical treatment—not to be your best friend. Or your therapist. Compare what this physician brings to the table and what they don’t bring, then decide what is most important. Follow your head and your heart. This may not be an easy decision, with some difficult trade-offs.
You and your doctor. Some physicians are better communicators than others. It’s up to you to decide whether or not a doctor’s unwillingness to answer questions is overshadowed by his or her technical brilliance. It’s your health. And your choice.
Have you faced a physician who seemed unhelpful? What did you do? Add a comment below to share your advice.