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The Keys to Building a Good Doctor-Patient Relationship

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David Spero, RN - Blogs
By David Spero, RNJuly 19, 2021

When I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) in 1989, doctor visits became a big part of my life. As a nurse, patient, and health writer, I’ve learned how important good relations with medical professionals can be.

In the years since diagnosis, I’ve seen general practitioners, neurologists, urologists, physiatrists, physical therapists (PT), occupational therapists (OT), and psychotherapists. Through these appointments and through leading Healthier Living self-help groups at Kaiser Permanente, I’ve become better at forming good partnerships with health professionals.

Let’s start at the beginning: choosing a doctor you can work with. Some things I learned to consider:

  • Do your communication styles match?
  • Does the doctor want someone who researches and thinks for themselves, or are they happier if you quietly follow orders?
  • Do they explain things to you in a way you can understand and answer your questions, or do they seem too rushed?

I’ve had both kinds, but as an independent-minded nurse, I really need a doc who’s comfortable with my explorations.

What do other patients think of them? Doctor rating sites like HealthGrades and RateMDs weren’t available when I was diagnosed, but WebMD has a good page on using ratings here.

Can you email your doctor and expect a reply? Does someone answer the office phone when you need advice? If the doctor isn’t available to answer questions, they may have a nurse to give advice and take a message, but I find it stressful if I can’t reach anyone.

When you need to see them, how long does it take to get an appointment? How convenient are they to you? If they’re a 2-hour drive away, you might want someone closer. (For me as a non-driver, distance would be a deal breaker.)

It’s always good to have a personal relationship with your health care professionals. You want them to think of you as a whole person, not as a damaged nervous system. To help them see you, it helps to see them as a whole person, too, not as a big brain with a stethoscope attached. 

In the Healthier Living program, I learned conversation starter tips such as these:

  • If they have pictures of family, artwork, or certificates displayed, you might ask about them or compliment them. 
  • You can share a little about yourself, as long as you respect their time.
  • If your doctor is in a large clinic or group practice where doctors rotate, try to see the same doctor whenever possible (if you like them.)
  • Doctors may be less rushed if you’re their first appointment in the morning or the first one after lunch, so consider asking for one of those time slots.

Making the Best Use of Appointments

Doctors’ appointment time is precious, and so is yours. Don’t waste it. I always try to come in prepared. I write down any questions I have, putting the most important first. If I have more than two, I print out a list and give it to them or email it before the appointment. The doctor should be able to answer at least the top two and get back to you with answers for the rest.

MS brings up issues that might be embarrassing or stressful to talk about, such as sexual dysfunction or incontinence. I find that health care professionals can help with such problems or refer me to someone who can, but they have to know about them first. They aren’t mind readers. We have to be brave enough to bring issues up early and not wait until the appointment is nearly over. Doctors hate that -- it doesn’t give them enough time to address your problem.

When I’m on the practitioner side as a nurse, I appreciate patients who bring a family member with them to listen and speak up when the patient is too nervous. A patient might say, “Things are going OK,” but their relative might correct them, “Actually, doc, he’s fallen three times this week.” More communication is better. Some people are more comfortable revealing embarrassing issues by email.

I’ve had doctors who I came to consider friends, and others I never wanted to see again. Good relationships with your health care team make your life with MS easier and less stressful.

Tip: If you’re having trouble finding good doctors, the National Multiple Sclerosis Society’s resources page can connect you with health care professionals, as well as emotional support, financial resources, and more.



Photo Credit: Ngampol Thongsai / EyeEm via Getty Images

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About the Author
David Spero, RN

David Spero, RN, became a writer and health coach after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1989. He writes books and blogs about living with chronic illness and the social causes of illness. A married father of two and grandfather of one, Spero is active in causes including health care, peace, and the environment. See his books; follow him on Medium or Twitter.

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