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10 things to know about your doctor that will get you better care

During a recent conversation with Dr. Dawn Sears, I mentioned that I was working on a presentation I wish to give locally, speaking on “How caring for your doctor gets you better care.”

Our discussion revealed some important insights all patients should be aware of, which we share here:

1. Let the pilot fly the plane. Passengers generally don’t walk onto an airplane and start complaining to the pilot about their seat assignment, the price of the ticket, or how their luggage was lost six years ago. We understand that the pilot’s job is to fly the plane, with different people being charged with the other tasks.

Physicians should not be held responsible for the entirety of patients’ health care experiences. Perhaps it’s a remnant of days gone by when physicians actually owned and ran their practices. Now, well over 50 percent of physicians have become “employees,” and their job is to provide physician care. Physicians are part of a team, with each member having narrowly defined roles.

ACTION: Talk to your physician about the actual medical issue that brings you to see them that day.

2. The average physician panel is 2,000 to 4,000 patients. The Grand Ole Opry in Nashville has 4,000 seats. Every day, a single physician is expected to be available for all of their patients’ individual needs and requests. When a patient sends three “urgent” requests for a prescription they ran out of yesterday, it creates a situation of “lack of planning on your part should not constitute an emergency on the physician’s part.”

ACTION: Please plan ahead. Make a single request if needed and allow several days before reaching out again unless it’s truly urgent.

3. Realize that physicians and all health care workers come in all varieties. Patients will regularly encounter women physicians and male nurses. Women and physicians of color are often incorrectly assumed to be non-physicians. As a female physician, Dr. Sears is constantly asked: “Are you the REAL doctor?” “When will the doctor be here?” When physicians have to justify and defend their role, it wastes valuable time and creates a barrier between the patient and their physician.

ACTION: Simply ask the health care worker to clarify their role whenever you aren’t sure, as opposed to making assumptions.

4. Recognize that physicians are not AI robots! They have needs. They go home at night. They need to eat, sleep, and use the restroom. Their children get sick. They take vacations. They, in turn, will provide you with personalized health care, appreciating you as an individual, not a “diagnosis.”

ACTION: Acknowledge that physicians are human too, with human needs and wants.

5. Know that physicians are likely the most highly trained individuals you’ll encounter in any given week. They complete four years of undergraduate education, frequently majoring in biology or chemistry. All physicians must pass organic chemistry and physics and take a high-stakes all-day exam to prove it prior to entry into medical school. All physicians then go through four years of medical school, averaging 30 hours of classwork every semester. Many rarely see friends and family for years, even prior to residency. Then, physicians go through residency, sometimes followed by a fellowship, typically lasting three to eight years, working 80-hour weeks, being on call most holidays and many nights per week, to fine-tune their skills before becoming an attending. Attending physicians have had over 20,000 hours of clinical experience.

ACTION: When you see your physician, know that they have a high level of experience; don’t be quick to discount their advice or suggestions.

6. Patients are not airplanes. Every human is different and will react differently to treatment. Some people experience extensive rashes or life-threatening complications after a bee sting, while others simply pull out the stinger and go about their day. Every treatment has potential risks and side effects. Speak with your physician to make the best decisions together.

ACTION: Don’t expect your physician to have a crystal ball or to know things unless you tell them. Whenever you visit a doctor, bring a list of your current medications and diagnoses, as well as prior surgeries and allergies.

7. Like a plane or a car, your body needs regular maintenance. When patients ignore their bodies, not providing good nutrition, active movement, or don’t avoid harmful things, a physician can’t be expected to “fix” them. Patients who acknowledge their role in disease and their role in healing have the best outcomes.

ACTION: Don’t expect miracles; expect to do some work. Look to your physician to guide you toward health and healing.

8. Ongoing medical advances are mind-blowing. New medications and therapies are released daily. However, life expectancy in the U.S. is not climbing. Life is 100 percent fatal. Historically, the greatest amounts of medical resources are utilized in the last year of life. “Can” and “should” are not the same. “More” is not always better. These are truths in health care, especially in hospital settings. AND praying for a miracle is understandable.

ACTION: Have realistic conversations with your physician and family members while you are able to speak for yourself, to ensure your wishes are honored.

9. Not all medical records are shared. A physician doesn’t know if you took a quick trip to your sister’s house and experienced a gallbladder attack requiring surgery. Both patients and physicians must work TOGETHER to keep records accurate and up-to-date. Simply dropping a car off at your mechanic without explaining the issue(s) you are having will likely result in a basic oil change, not solve the underlying problem(s).

ACTION: Take responsibility to partner with your physicians.

10. Everyone deserves kindness. A simple, “Thank you for all you are doing for me!” goes much further than a box of donuts.

ACTION: Consider sending a “Happy New Year!” card to each of your physicians. Write a thank you note to them, letting them know that you’re aware many physicians have left medical practice over the past couple of years (over 10 percent!), that you genuinely appreciate them, and that you’re glad they are still providing outstanding health care to you and your community.

Kim Downey is a physical therapist. Dawn Sears is a gastroenterologist and can be reached on Twitter @GutGirlMD, YouTube, and at GutGirlMD Consulting.

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