Are you in a patient-style ‘rut’? How to talk so your doctor listens

PD in Practice

Author: Kathleen Kelley ReardonPublished: 26 October 2017

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Smiling doctor and patients

Kathleen Kelley Reardon, a preventive medicine expert – who also lives with Parkinson’s – explains why it’s important to know your individual patient style and assess whether you’re helping or hindering positive outcomes


Most of us can recall a time when we didn’t ask a doctor an important question, or when we rambled during an appointment instead of focusing on what mattered most to us. We may have failed to listen to a medical professional, or been anxious to get out of the office and put the whole thing behind us.

We are all creatures of habit, and that’s no less the case when we’re communicating as patients. Our styles or routines can hinder or help us get the medical care needed for ourselves, or someone else, especially if doctors are feeling pressured about time spent with each patient.

Most of us can recall a time when we didn’t ask a doctor an important question, or when we rambled during an appointment instead of focusing on what mattered most to us. We may have failed to listen to a medical professional, or been anxious to get out of the office and put the whole thing behind us.

We are all creatures of habit, and that’s no less the case when we’re communicating as patients. Our styles or routines can hinder or help us get the medical care needed for ourselves, or someone else, especially if doctors are feeling pressured about time spent with each patient.

Listening to doctor

What kind of patient are you?

As a researcher of doctor-patient communication, I’ve observed multiple patient styles over the years. Most of us employ a combination of the styles listed below.

Use your recollections to assess if your style inclinations are helping positive outcomes. If not, you may need to stretch your style, and experiment.

Doers act quickly. They’re results oriented. They detest what they perceive as wasting time with indecision. As with all patient styles, there are pros and cons to a tendency toward quick action. A lot of important information can be missed. On the positive side, this kind of patient is unlikely to let a warning sign go unexamined.

Detectives, by contrast, are data collectors. They use the internet to learn, talk with other patients who’ve been through the same illness, visit more than one doctor, and often decide upon a course of action only after their research is complete. They may come to an appointment with a list of questions.

Consenters place their health totally in the hands of doctors. They do what they’re told. They are “good patients”. They make overworked doctors smile. But they often suffer for it. Doctor-patient relationships are just that, relationships. They require the input of two people.

Loyal patients stay with doctors who might not be right for them, or their illness, because they don’t want to cause offense. I recently had a conversation with this type of patient. He told me his doctor doesn’t listen, seems not to know what medications he’s taking, doesn’t like questions, and has little time to make anything clear. “So why do you stick with him?” I asked. “That’s what I’m wondering,” he replied. “But I keep doing it.”

Deniers prefer to function as if the diagnosis never happened. Denial can be functional to a degree and at certain times. A Parkinson’s patient who visited me derived some benefit from early denial. She explained that right after diagnosis, believing she’d been misdiagnosed helped her sleep better. In time, however, she sought help and support.

Resistors fight their doctors about nearly everything or simply don’t follow their instructions. One of my doctors recently told me, “You’re the worst patient ever!” Then he smiled and added, “But I’d be just like you.” There are, however, degrees of resistance. Some are healthy. If you have questions before beginning a medication or have a history that might shed light on why you hesitate to take it, resistance can be productive until you get the answers needed.

Alarmists think every symptom means a fatal brain tumour or something equally horrific. They overreact and panic easily. They cry ‘wolf’ so often that even doctors tune them out. If you’ve been like this on occasion, don’t feel bad about it. Especially after having a serious illness, it’s not unusual to think a symptom might be a recurrence or sign of progression. A little alarm can get a denier to the doctor.

Troopers want to fight the good fight. They’re more inclined to underestimate their medical needs – to be strong in the face of adversity. This is admirable. When taken too far, though, these people don’t get good care. It’s great to be tough, just be sure you’re informed.

Thespians handle their illness as if living on stage. To them it is an unfolding drama in which they play the lead role. Everyone is part of the audience. Here, again, a little drama never hurt anyone. Just don’t let illness define you or be the subject of too many conversations. And be aware of the manner in which you describe symptoms to those who can help.

Procrastinators put off seeing doctors or having check-ups. It’s not that they’re being strong like troopers or engaged in denial, they just can’t seem to get around to taking care of their health. They think their lives are busier than those of other people or they can’t be bothered making mountains out of molehills when there are so many pressing issues in life.

Styles aren’t inherently good or bad. Stylistic ‘ruts’ should be avoided. If you’re stuck in one, try wiggling out. And, remember, it can be useful to discuss your style with your doctor. For example, “I tend to be alarmed easily. If you’d take a moment to explain why I shouldn’t be, that would help” or “I come from a long line of troopers. We underestimate medical issues. Am I doing that now?”.

Styles are learned. That means they can be unlearned or at least managed. If one isn’t working for you, do some tweaking. It can make a world of difference to your health.

This article is an edited version of a post that originally appeared on ‘Thrive Global and is published here with the permission of Kathleen Kelley Reardon.


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