Going to the doctor can be downright nerve-wracking. There you are in a thin gown on the exam room table waiting for your physician, who finally rushes in. After you anxiously rattle the symptoms you can remember, she checks you over, maybe asks a question or two, then gives you a diagnosis or tells you what the next steps are. You leave her office not necessarily thinking that what she said is correct. But she’s the doctor, right?
Wrong. Doctors aren’t infallible, and just because she has a med school degree doesn’t mean you can’t let her know she’s rushing you or invalidating your symptoms. There’s actually a name for the way we don’t second-guess a physician’s expertise or call out any disrespectful behavior. It’s called white-coat syndrome—and it’s time we stop putting up with it.
“When someone dons a white coat, we take them more seriously, feel we are in more knowledgeable hands, and unconsciously slip into a role of obedience as a matter of course,” Sana Goldberg, RN, explained in her new book, How to Be a Patient: The Essential Guide to Navigating the World of Modern Medicine.
Goldberg then referenced a study that proves this phenomenon. In 1961, Yale psychology professor Stanley Milgram demonstrated that when study subjects were paired up and one wore a white coat, the other became more obedient and acted as if the person in the white coat as an authority figure. (Sound familiar? You might have heard about this experiment in your college psych 101 class.)
“Milgram tapped into the power we assign to a lab coat, and consequently into our innate response to authority—showing that it’s a universal tendency,” Goldberg wrote.
As a nurse, Goldberg tells Health that she’s seen white-coat syndrome in action many times. “The authority can be used in such a misguided and harmful way,” she says. “Doctors are just people, and they really shouldn’t be put on a pedestal.” Here’s her advice on how to resist and overcome white-coat syndrome.
Choose a team of providers
If you curate a team of doctors (such as a primary-care physician, ob-gyn, ophthalmologist, and dentist) that you trust and feel comfortable with, you’ll have an easier time speaking up when a pressing health issue arises. Also, these doctors will know what your “normal” is, which is crucial in determining a diagnosis.
Rely on resources other than your doctor
The spotlight that shines on doctors often blinds us to other health care professionals who might be more helpful, Goldberg says, such as pharmacists, nurses, and physical therapists. If you’re concerned about a side effect of your new medicine, ask your pharmacist about it. If you’re worried about managing your illness emotionally, talk to your nurse for tips. “We’re so attuned to [doctors] that we miss these other people who might be able to help us even more effectively with the problem at hand,” she says.
Come to your appointments prepared
Before your doctor visit, prepare what Goldberg calls an “opening statement.” Basically, write down a list of every point you want to get across. What symptoms do you want to talk about? How intense are those symptoms? Do they get worse at a certain time of day? Or perhaps after you eat certain foods? Write. Everything. Down.
Goldberg also recommends preparing questions. “When you don’t ask questions, things are more likely to be overlooked,” she says. Don’t know where to start? Simply ask your doctor to walk you through their reasoning for whatever they’ve advised you. “If they provide a diagnosis, tell you that your pain is normal, or decide to wait and see how you feel in time, don’t settle on that point until you receive it in a way you can understand,” she says.
Bring a loved one with you
When the doc enters the room, we often get nervous about explaining something so important in a short amount of time, and we end up forgetting key details. If you think you might still have trouble getting your points across even after writing them down, Goldberg advises bringing a loved one with you for support. Research shows that just the presence of a close friend or family member can ease our nerves. Plus, they can help you recall key details you might forget to mention.
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