Provider Perspective: Can You Spell That?
Have you ever called to make a doctor’s appointment and listed one reason for the visit when you really had seven? And when you got there it was easier to talk about the least important one first and the most important last, by which time the provider seemed rushed? Or have you left an appointment feeling totally confused, kicking yourself that you nodded your head when the provider was talking without fully understanding what they were saying? If you answered “yes,” you are not alone. Going to the doctor can be difficult, confusing, and frustrating. Below is some advice to instead help make your next visit productive, fulfilling and informative.
The first thing a provider should make sure you know at a visit is that if you are an adult, everything discussed in the visit is confidential. This means they cannot tell anyone what you said unless there is serious concern for your safety or someone else’s. For those under 18, laws of confidentiality still protect reproductive and mental health services. These laws do vary by state, but for most states, they cover STI screening and treatment, birth control and prenatal care. This means that the provider is going to discuss your acne and asthma care with your parents present, but can treat you for gonorrhea without anyone else knowing.
Sometimes providers ask a lot of personal questions and being unsure of why they need to know that and what they are going to do with the information, it can be tempting to be less than 100% honest. However, not disclosing the things you are (or are not) doing at home can be harmful to your health. This is because telling a provider misinformation can lead to wrong diagnoses, not getting tests and treatments you need or getting ones you do not need (and that might be harmful). This can be frustrating for both patients and providers.
Questions such as “what types of sex do you have?” and “how many sexual partners have you had in the past year?” can seem intrusive and irrelevant. However, the questions providers ask are not intended to just check off boxes in the medical record or aimed at shaming or embarrassing you. The questions they ask provide clues about what might be going on, what dangerous diagnoses can be ruled out, and what you are at risk for. For example, knowing the types of sex – anal, oral or vaginal – that you are having can shed light on what STIs you should be tested for and where they could be hanging out. If you do not want to answer a question, it is always better to say, “I prefer not to answer that,” or “Before I answer, can you explain why you are asking?” rather than lying.
As many questions as providers ask, they also want patients to be informed and to ask questions back. At their core, providers are science geeks who love to explain things that they find interesting, namely cool facts about the body. Asking, “What the heck is that?” or “What does that crazy Latin/Greek word mean?” or “Can you spell epididymitis?” is not annoying but rather an invitation for them to geek out, and for you to gain better understanding of your body.
When you go to the doctor, it is good to bring a list of questions and concerns with you. While it may seem silly or you may think you will remember everything, a list helps ensure that all of your questions get answered. There is no shame in having a list. After all, providers have them too, and often provide better care and avoid forgetting to ask you important questions when they use them.
One final thing to keep in mind when it comes to your health is that if you do not feel that a provider is listening to you, or if you get a weird vibe from them, or if you just want to see if you have a better interaction with someone else, that is OK. You have the right to say, “I want to schedule with someone else next time” or “I prefer ___ gender of provider,” or to find a completely new practice. If you do not think your health will be better with your current provider, you can and should seek a new one. Going to the doctor is about maintaining and improving your health and wellbeing, and nothing else matters.
Answering provider questions honestly, asking for clarity on what you don’t understand and seeking a provider you feel comfortable with is essential to having positive interactions at the doctor’s office. And this will, in turn, allow you to feel more empowered in your decision making, ultimately leading you to receive the best health.
Arin Swerlick, MD is a Physician at Children's National
*This piece is of her own opinion and not that of Children's National Hospital