How a doctor’s appointment works in an ideal world: You explain your issue to a provider, your provider gets to the bottom of it, and you work together to address your concern. Unfortunately, we know that’s not always how it goes. See: medical gaslighting,racism in health care, and sexism in science. Which are all reasons why it can take years for some patients to get a proper diagnosis. An issue that predominantly affects women. Note: It tends to take around seven to 10 years for someone to get diagnosed with endometriosis.
And if you feel as though your doctor isn’t taking your health issue seriously… then you might have a serious problem. So it’s important to advocate for yourself. Regardless of whether you’re dealing with pelvic cramps, back pain, irregular bleeding, or any other physical or mental symptom that doesn’t feel right. Because here’s the thing: “You are the expert of your body,” as Dr. Amy Addante, a board-certified OB-GYN, said. So if something feels off to you, there’s a good chance it is.
We talked to Dr. Addante about how to look out for number one (yes, you) when it comes to prepping for a doc appointment, meeting with a provider, and following up.
Before the appointment…
Schedule enough time. Depending on what you’re concerned about, you might consider scheduling an appointment separate from your annual wellness exam, Dr. Addante said. If it’s something seemingly more minor — like a recent change in your vaginal discharge — your doc might be able to address that during a regular check-up. But for a potentially chronic issue, she said, “I don’t think a wellness visit allows for the time or energy needed to thoroughly investigate.” Keep in mind: Sometimes doctors are only allotted 11 to 15 minutes per appointment, and many are overscheduled and burned out. A separate appointment would give you and your doc a dedicated slot to address the issue.
Keep a symptom diary. And write in it regularly before you see a provider. “A month would be ideal to keep track of your symptoms,” Dr. Addante said. But the more info you have, the more helpful it can be. If your issue is with pain, think about answering questions like:
When does it occur?
For how long?
What does it feel like?
What helped? What makes it worse?
Where am I in my menstrual cycle when I feel it?
What are my urination and bowel habits like when I’m in pain?
Did I eat or drink anything unusual before symptoms occurred?
“[Putting] all of that into context helps us pick out patterns that can be specific to one disease or another,” Dr. Addante said.
Feel empowered to research and write questions down. Which doesn’t mean getting lost “down the Google rabbit hole,” Dr. Addante said. Instead, focus on reading reputable medical sources.(Think: American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, Mayo Clinic. Not too much TikTok.) And write a list of questions you have about what you’ve read and what you’re feeling. Something to consider mentioning at the appointment, if you’re comfortable: “any trauma history that you have, particularly if it involves any sort of sexual or physical abuse,” Dr. Addante said. This information can be helpful to make sure a physical exam is done in an extra sensitive way, she said. And because people who have trauma history tend to have an increased incidence of chronic pelvic pain and other chronic pain conditions — for reasons not entirely understood. Note: If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline.
At the appointment…
Focus on your questions. And be direct, so you don’t have any post-appointment ‘Oh, I should’ve said this’ regrets. Dr. Addante suggests saying, at the top of the appointment: “These are the concerns that I’d like to address during today’s visit.” Then pull out your journal and list of questions to make sure you stay on track.
Know that you might need multiple appointments. “Unfortunately, as physicians, we don’t always have a lot of control over our schedule,” Dr. Addante said. But your doc can let you know from the start whether they can address all of your concerns within the time constraints, or if it’d be a good idea to schedule a follow-up to talk more.
Keep an open mind. If you’re well-researched and found the name for a condition that seems to match your symptoms, feel free to mention the illness. “But don’t marry it,” Dr. Addante said. Because your doctor might want to test for something else that you didn’t consider. For example, Dr. Addante said she personally dealt with pelvic pain. Since she treats other people with this condition, she was able to recognize the issue as trauma to the muscular floor of her pelvis caused by childbirth. But other people might Google her symptoms and find websites linking it to ovarian cysts, IBD, bladder conditions, and more. Because “the list of things that can cause pelvic pain is long,” she said. FWIW, Dr. Addante worked with her doctor to manage the issue with physical therapy.
Speak out if your concerns aren’t being addressed. Hint: There’s a way to do that respectfully and clearly. “Most physicians want our patients to feel comfortable with the care plans that we make, [and sometimes] that care plan is reassuring the patient that what they’re experiencing is normal,” Dr. Addante said. But if you feel that your needs are being brushed aside, “It’s OK to say to your doctor: ‘I’m concerned that maybe you’re not hearing everything that I’m worried about...’” In a sense, serve as your own personal PR pro who makes sure her client (you) gets what she needs.
If you’re feeling uneasy after the appointment…
Get another opinion. “Every physician brings their own expertise and background,” Dr. Addante said. “So I might not recognize or diagnose something if it’s a little less common or I'm not a specialist [in that area]. Medical care can be a team sport.” So it’s worth getting a second opinion. Or third. “Any physician that tells you not to get a second opinion when you're worried about something is not someone who you should be seeing.”
Remember: You know your body best. “Your physician's job is to try to understand the pathology of what you're feeling,” Dr. Addante said. “But it's your lived experience.”
Effectively advocating for yourself at the doctor’s office takes work. From keeping a symptom journal to prepping a list of questions. But ultimately, you also need to trust your gut in the moment. Because if you don’t think your concerns are being adequately addressed, they might not be. And it might be time to get another opinion.
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