Get To Know Your Body: Part II (How to be a Better Patient)

As a follow-up from my last article, discussing the importance of knowing one’s body and being more educated regarding health, here I bring you a list of tips and advice regarding how to interact with the medical establishment as it relates to one’s own body/health:

Follow doctor’s orders, but if you choose to disregard/modify them, make sure you’re taking informed risks. It’s foolish to assume all patients follow all directions ALL THE TIME. Assess your risks if you’re going to disregard a rule so you can make a truly informed opinion. Don’t believe everything you read online, though the ‘net can be a terrific resource. Trust articles in peer-reviewed journals more than random websites. To be a better consumer of information, you’ll need to up your media literacy skills (but that’s another post entirely). Regardless, as much as you can manage, follow your doctor’s orders!

Be honest with your practitioners. Don’t hide things from them because you’re ashamed or think they might judge you. Whatever the awkwardness, it’s more important to tell them the truth because that information is what will help them take care of you.

If you don’t like your doctor, get a new one. However, don’t confuse “don’t like because they’re incompetent or they make me uncomfortable” for “they sometimes tell me things I don’t want to hear and might be more strict than I want them to be.” Feel free, though, to shop around for a doctor that resonates with you, your personality, and your particular budget/insurance.

Don’t assume “no news is good news.” Doctor’s offices are often swamped, and it’s your responsibility to remember when to get (or at least ask for) your test results.

Before going in for a procedure, look online and talk to your doctor to learn what to expect. This is especially helpful when dealing with first time exams, particularly pelvic and prostate exams. It will help you know the timeline and what will happen, so it might help assuage stress. It can also help you catch if something’s missing! Did the doctor forget to give you something or do a certain procedure? Politely ask them about it, and why they chose not to do it. If you approach it tactfully and not in a condescending or impatient manner, it can be a way to show you’re invested in your health and have done your homework.

Give more information, rather than less. This doesn’t mean bore your doctor with the minutiae of your life, certainly, but that doctors sometimes need more information than we give them. If you think it MIGHT be related to your health, mention it just in case (for example, if you’re taking up a new intense sport, a friend passed away, you’re starting a new diet, etc.). You should also try to be concise, but not at the expense of important details. This is a process of trial and error, and the more you learn about how your body relates to your health and daily activities, the better equipped you’ll be to make these decisions about what’s relevant in the future.

Inspect your body and get in touch with it (literally and figuratively). I’m not saying you need massage oils, Celtic music, and a warm bath (though those can be lovely); I’m just saying pay attention to your body, feel it out, and look for changes. You can only tell when something is deviating from its normal state if you KNOW that normal state is in the first place. Don’t be afraid to touch yourself (again, literally and figuratively); consider it an investment in your health and future.

If you feel strange or develop a lump, a body of symptoms, pains, etc., WRITE IT DOWN. Keep a log of what you’re feeling and when it started, so when (and if) you have to talk to your doctor, you can give them a better picture of what’s going on and how long it has been a certain way.

Be potentially willing to educate your doctor. Though doctors receive a LOT of schooling, there’s a lot of information they still need. Especially when it comes to “alternative lifestyles” or structurally-oppressed groups/minorities, many doctors don’t have the skills and knowledge to treat them in sensitive, aware ways. Not everyone has the privilege/luxury to pick whatever doctor they want or see a doctor that fits their particular needs, so they’ll be in a position in which they need to deal with the hand they’re dealt and educate their practitioner. There are many online and print resources that you can make available to them, so you don’t have to harness all this knowledge on your own! It’s an unfortunate situation, especially for those who are usually placed in a position where they have to educate people around them regarding their identities/lifestyles, but until the structures that build these conditions are addressed and changed, it’s either a choice between educating a doctor or receiving sub-par and potentially inadequate care.

Be aware of language differences and particularly loaded terms. If a doctor asks if you’ve engaged in “risky behavior,” ask what they mean. If a doctor asks if you’ve “used protection during sex,” ask what they mean. These are vague questions loaded with assumptions and, not only is that problematic in itself, it can lead to misinterpreting the question and answering in a way that might sound/feel truthful, but doesn’t get at the meat of the discussion. Know that words you use might not be interpreted in the same way by doctors (especially when it comes to sexual health and sexual activities!).

Check on your family medical history. This is especially helpful when assessing risk factors and patterns of disease! If you are in touch with your biological parents or biological relatives, ask them for their medical history (or records, if they have them). If you’re not in touch with your biological family, start keeping records of your own; these can benefit potential future generations.

Voice your concerns and ask questions. Doctors aren’t mind-readers. If there’s something making you uncomfortable, tell your doctor. If you need to think about it and organize your thoughts beforehand, that’s fine, but make sure to let them know at SOME point. Like any other relationship, a doctor/patient one needs communication, especially because your health depends on it!

Remember what you discussed during the visit. Either ask them to write it down for you or bring a little notepad (or whatever writing device is useful for you). If you have issue with your sight or just prefer things that are audible, bring a small tape-recorder or something like it.

Educate yourself regarding STI-testing. Again, many doctors generally have a limited background in sexual health, so make sure to educate yourself, especially regarding new technologies, tests, and research. “Recommended” tests are based on statistics and population analyses regarding infection rates, but you should ask for tests based on your own sexual history and level of risk/concern, so look up information about those before going into the office. This is crucial for those who are non-monogamous (whether openly or clandestinely) and those who are LGBTQ, since doctors sometimes operate under a model that assumes heterosexuality and monogamy. As I mentioned earlier, language is also important, so make sure you and your provider are very clear about what you’re discussing (e.g. “sex” might mean “penis-in-vagina intercourse” to some people, while it may be a broader category for others).

More specifically, related to certain practices/tests:

  • Don’t go to the OBGYN while you’re menstruating. It makes it much harder and messier to do proper check-ups.
  • If you’re going to get a pap-smear, refrain from intercourse for at least 24 hours.
  • If you’re getting a physical, try to schedule it during NON-winter months, since by then, doctor’s offices are full of flu-ridden people. Read: they’re busier and you’re more likely to get sick, too.

3 thoughts on “Get To Know Your Body: Part II (How to be a Better Patient)

  1. Sarah says:

    Also, as my roommate pointed out, related to educating yourself – if you go to a family practitioner (as opposed to a specialist), they see so many people with so many different issues that they may not always be up on the latest guidelines. For example, there are plenty of doctors at our clinic (not the school, the main one), who don't know that you only need a pap smear every 3 years, because that guideline just came out – and then you may be wasting time/money on a doctor visit you don't need.

  2. Sarah says:

    I LOVE this. Everything you said is right on the money. Now if only I could put it at a 4th grade reading level, add some pictures, and print it out as a brochure for my students. 🙂 For real though, I'm going to be developing a health literacy workshop and I hope you don't mind if I am inspired by your tips.Fun fact: While having your period during a gyno exam can be messy and obscure things, it can actually be helpful during an IUD insertion!

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