How To Make Sure Your Doctor Takes Your Health Concerns Seriously

From a young age, we’re taught that we can trust doctors to cure our aches and pains. And while we hope that will remain true as we get older, recent evidence has shown that many medical professionals tend to dismiss the health concerns of a patient based on their gender, race, weight, and other factors.

According to Katherine Sherif, director of the women’s primary care unit at Jefferson University in Philadelphia, she hears stories every day from her patients about how other doctors haven’t listened to what they were saying and thus missed an important clue to solving their health issues. Sherif doesn’t believe that this minimization of women’s health concerns is intentional, but that the general sexism in society has left large gaps in women’s sexual and reproductive health care.

Writer Joe Fassler described one such experience his wife, Rachel, had. She became one of the 136.9 million people who visit the emergency room when she was suffering from severe abdominal pain. She categorized this pain as an 11 on the typical scale that ranges from 1 to 10, yet nurses told her she was just feeling a little pain. The overseeing physician never did a physical examination and diagnosed the pain as kidney stones while waiting for a CT scan. 

After waiting for hours for the CT scan, they discovered Rachel didn’t have kidney stones but was experiencing ovarian torsion. Her fallopian tube was twisting and cutting off blood flow, causing a pain that is akin to organ failure. She was rushed into surgery 14 and a half hours after her pain had started. 

While this is a more extreme case, it’s been proven that there is a significant difference in the wait time for men and women in emergency situations. In the United States, men wait an average of 49 minutes before they receive an analgesic for acute abdominal pain while women wait for an average of 65 minutes for the exact same treatment.

When a person has intersecting marginalized identities, they are even more likely to experience dismissal from doctors. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, black women are three to four times more likely to die from complications related to pregnancy than white women. Experts say the main reason for this disparity is racism, as black women are often undervalued and doctors may dismiss their symptoms. 

Tennis star Serena Williams even faced this issue, as she had to plead with doctors to take her concerns seriously when she felt pain after giving birth to her daughter via a cesarean section. After their initial dismissals, doctors finally did an ultrasound and found that she had a pulmonary embolism. 

All of this begs the question, how can you ensure that your doctor listens to your health concerns before the situation becomes dire? Here are a few tips to make sure that you are heard when it comes to your health.

  • Write down your concerns and don’t be afraid to say them. Doctors often have a waiting room full of patients and you will likely have a limited time with them. Before you go in, write out your concerns so that you don’t forget anything or downplay your pain. Rather than waiting for your doctor to ask you questions, dive in with some of your own so that you get the information you need.
  • Quantify your issues. If you can present your concerns to your doctor with measurable data, they may be more likely to take them seriously. For instance, if you’re concerned about how many headaches you experience, don’t just say that you’ve been getting a lot of headaches at work. Tell your doctor you’re getting two to three headaches per day. 
  • Advocate for yourself or ask someone else to advocate for you. If you feel like your doctor is dismissing your concerns or rushing through your appointment, try standing up for yourself. If you don’t feel safe doing this or they still don’t listen, ask a trusted professional advocate for you. A psychologist could help someone talk to their primary physician or a doula could help a pregnant woman advocate for her needs.

A doctor may be a medical expert, but you are the expert in your own body. After all, you have been living in it your entire life. Make sure that you are receiving the care and attention you need and don’t be afraid to ask others for help in this effort too. When doctors take your concerns seriously, you can start living a healthier and more comfortable life.

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