Going to the doctor can be a stressful experience for anyone. It can be especially so if you’re dealing with anxiety in addition to another type of physical symptom or condition. You may be afraid that after taking note of your anxiety, your doctor will dismiss other symptoms as “being in your head.” Even worse, you may have already heard this before with another doctor.
Feeling like you’re being dismissed despite valid complaints is not uncommon.
Studies show that doctors can treat patients differently without even realizing it, based on race or gender bias. Indeed, the unequal treatment of women and men in healthcare — like women being less likely than men to receive certain treatments for the same conditions — has been well-documented by researchers and news media alike.
However, it’s important to note that every doctor is different. If you’ve had a negative experience that doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed to have a repeat experience the next time around. There are also some things you can do before and during an appointment to help improve communication between you and your doctor.
Here are some tips to help you be prepared for your next appointment.
Preparing for your visit
Getting organized before a doctor’s appointment does double duty: it helps ease anxiety and makes sure you’re prepared with all the information you’ll need for your doctor.
1. Get your medical records
If you’re seeing a new doctor or going to a specialist for the first time, it’s important for that person to see your records from previous appointments. Sometimes, even after being requested, records don’t make it over to the new office in time for your appointment.
Dr. Barbara Bergin, an orthopedic surgeon at Texas Orthopedics, recommends bringing any discs or hard copies of records to the office if you have them. That way, you know they made it to your doctor.
2. Have a plan for addressing your anxiety
If you’ve dealt with anxiety for a while, you’ve probably gotten to know the way it makes your mind and body feel. You want to communicate to your doctor that you’re aware of your anxiety symptoms but these other symptoms feel different.
To help a doctor separate a diagnosis of anxiety from a physical symptom you’re having, Vinita Mehta, PhD, a Washington, D.C.-based clinical psychologist, recommends keeping a mood diary.
“Record when you felt anxiety, the physical symptoms, the thoughts that were going through your mind, and the situation,” says Dr. Mehta. “This can be very helpful in determining if you have particular triggers of anxiety and the type of anxiety.”
You can bring your mood diary to your appointment or put together a list of symptoms and triggers linked to the anxiety. Being able to discuss the specifics of your anxiety can help your doctor get a better understanding of your history.
3. Know your talking points
You and your doctor will only have so much face-to-face time per visit. You want to make the most of it. One study found that doctors spend an average of 17.5 minutes with a patient during an appointment.
Before going to your appointment, write down a list of symptoms you’d like to discuss and questions you have for your doctor. Bring this with you as a guide during your visit.
During your visit
4. Pick two or three issues per appointment
If you have several things going on, your doctor might not be able to tackle it all during one appointment. Reciting a long list of every pain or issue you’ve been having can make it hard for your doctor to focus.
Chronic conditions like rheumatoid arthritis or fibromyalgia can often require several doctor visits before your doctor is able to gather enough information to form a diagnosis. They can also cause a wide variety of symptoms, which might appear at different times.
To avoid frustration on both ends, Dr. Bergin recommends picking the two or three most painful or concerning symptoms to address for any one appointment. You can then schedule a follow-up to address additional issues.
5. Give a good history
Be prepared to really explain your symptoms well. Start from the beginning and work your way to present day. Dr. Bergin says it’s very confusing for doctors when patients jump around in time or from one body part to another when talking about their symptoms.
6. Be descriptive
Try to be as descriptive and accurate as possible when talking about pain, what it feels like, and how it’s impacting your daily life. If you’re having trouble explaining the level of pain, Dr. Bergin says telling your doctor what it feels like can help. Compare it to something else you’ve experienced, like “This is worse than when I had a baby,” she says.
7. Let your doctor make suggestions first
Giving your doctor instructions on care or telling them what you don’t want before hearing their assessment can cause communication issues. Your doctor might feel like you’re not being respectful of their knowledge and could be quicker to dismiss what you have to say.
After you’ve answered their questions and given a description of your symptoms, let your doctor explain their recommendations for additional testing or treatment. Once they’ve done this, then bring up your concerns or preferences. Dr. Bergin says this is also a good time to ask your doctor about information or treatments you’ve read about online.
Many reasons can factor into a negative communication experience between patient and doctor. It can also take several tests and visits before getting a diagnosis, especially in the case of less common chronic conditions. But the bottom line is that you deserve to be heard and taken seriously. You know your body — and when something just doesn’t feel right.
“Ask as many questions as you feel you need,” says Dr. Mehta. “If you still feel like you haven't been heard, get a second opinion.”