a lupus patient and her doctor with a stethoscope making a heart

How Your Relationship With Your Doctor Can Impact Your Health

People with chronic conditions like lupus depend on their doctors, not only for a correct diagnosis, but also to help stay on track with treatment and to address any problems that pop up along the way. A recent study showed that this relationship can be an important part of your health. The quality of this relationship – good or bad – can impact the rest of your life as well.

Poor experiences with physicians can have long-lasting effects, including loss of self-confidence, fear of reporting symptoms, and lack of interest in seeking medical care at all. Read on to learn more about these important findings, as well as tips for improving your relationship with your doctor – or finding a new one altogether.1

It all starts at diagnosis

The study interviewed 233 people with lupus and focused on questions about their relationships with their medical team. A common theme in these responses was the importance of diagnosis.1

Diagnosis is a life-changing experience for many people with lupus. For some, it means finally understanding your symptoms and getting on a path to wellness. For others, it can be a time of fear and uncertainty. The study results indicated that how your doctor treats you at the time of diagnosis can leave its mark on your relationship for a long time, especially if your doctor does not take your symptoms seriously at first.1

Some people described feeling relieved when they were finally diagnosed with lupus, because it offered “proof” to their doctors. Unfortunately, the feeling of insecurity does not always go away after lupus is confirmed, and it is not always confined to the doctor’s office.1

On the other hand, people who had good relationships with their doctors felt empowered at diagnosis. As a study participant explained, “After all those years of strange symptoms and accusations of mental weakness, everything fell into place. Far from it being my fault in some way or evidence of lack of true grit, I could see that I had actually overcome much.”1

Find a doctor who listens

It is hard to have a trusting relationship with doctors when you feel like they do not listen to you. The study found that this can take 2 forms:1

  • The doctor does not practice “active listening.” Study participants reported feeling like their doctors were more focused on their computers than their patients.
  • Doctors did not take patient accounts seriously, especially in the case of "invisible" symptoms, such as joint pain, fatigue, or quality of life issues

When people felt that their doctors were not listening to them, they often stopped talking about their symptoms at all. Some even stopped going to the doctor. This is dangerous because it can lead to symptoms being undertreated or, worse, life-threatening conditions not being treated at all.1

However, people who felt that their doctors listened to them reported feeling safe and in control. As a study participant wrote, “There was no questioning my experience, it was accepting my experience.”1

These doctors tended to ask their lupus patients about invisible symptoms, such as poor sleep or brain fog, making it easier for people to talk about how they felt.1

Talk about your feelings

If there is anything worse than a doctor who makes you feel like your symptoms are “all in your head,” it is a doctor who ignores the symptoms that actually are in your head.

As a study participant said of their doctor, “He’s not interested in the emotional or the practical side of living with the disease, he’s purely interested in the disease.”1

This was an important topic for the researchers, who were concerned that poor doctor-patient relationships can actually hurt mental health.1

Even though an increase in mental health symptoms is common in people with lupus, the study found that people commonly did not talk to their doctors about mental health or cognitive concerns because they were embarrassed, afraid of stigma, or worried it would cause the doctor to misdiagnose diagnose physical symptoms as mental ones. This fear made some of these people choose not to talk to their doctors about their depression, anxiety, mood changes, and difficulty thinking.1

However, some people did feel comfortable talking about their mental health or quality of life issues with their doctors. These were also the people who had the most trusting relationships with their doctors. A key factor: These doctors had strong enough relationships with their patients that they noticed something was wrong or they simply asked about it.1

Build a good relationship, or pick a new doctor

The study concludes that although trust can be broken, it can also be rebuilt with positive experiences. As a first step, the researchers suggest that physicians should acknowledge that the diagnostic journey can have a long-lasting impact on patient well-being and behavior.1

Other things doctors can do to empower patients include:1

  • Active listening
  • Involving patients in decision-making
  • Believing what patients say about their symptoms
  • Talking about ways to improve quality of life

These behaviors result in a doctor-patient relationship built on trust, and it can often result in better patient health for two reasons: Patients are more likely to follow treatment instructions, and they are more likely to talk about their symptoms. When the patient and doctor become a team, everyone wins.

If your relationship with your doctor is having a negative effect, it may be time to find a new one. After all, your health may depend on it.

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