Are You Scared to Talk to Your Doctor?

By Anne-Marie Botek, Editor

Does the thought of talking to your doctor give you a racing heart and sweaty palms?

Maybe it’s the pristine white coats, or the years of schooling that we know are crammed into their brains. Whatever this x-factor of intimidation is, research has shown that people find doctors intimidating.

A recently published study has concluded that, despite efforts to encourage shared decision-making between doctors and their patients, a good portion of people continue to view their relationship with their physician as one between a subordinate and a superior, rather than as a partnership.

After conducting a series of focus groups in the San Francisco area, researchers found that, even though most patients said they desired an honest dialogue with their doctor, many didn’t feel comfortable actually having that conversation once they got into the exam room.

When asked about why they were hesitant to talk openly with their doctor, some participants said they felt they needed to conform to the traditional role of the compliant patient, while others felt that their physician was too “authoritarian” to be accessible.  Some participants even expressed the fear that being labeled a “difficult” patient might result in a doctor punishing them by doling out substandard care.

These findings are of no surprise to Kevin Jones, M.D., surgeon and researcher at the Huntsman Cancer Institute, who was not involved in the study. “Most patients don’t want to annoy a physician and get abandoned, so they are afraid to ask questions,” he says.

Indeed, when it comes to doctors, Jones says, “A person should be more afraid of not speaking to them. They should be more concerned about the things they are not learning, the things that are not being explained to them.”

As the author of the book, What Doctors Cannot Tell You: Clarity, Confidence and Uncertainty in Medicine, Jones is an expert on the barriers that stand in the way of effective doctor-patient dialogue.

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The confidence conundrum

Especially when it comes to communicating with baby boomers and those over the age of 60, Jones feels that the traditional views of physicians as all-knowing may be doing more harm than good.

“Having a sense of respect for doctors isn’t a ‘bad’ thing—but it can be a problem,” Jones admits.

According to the San Francisco study, even financial security and higher education don’t seem to successfully inoculate a person against apprehension and a sense of unworthiness when it comes to dialoging with their doctor. Every person participating in the experiment was 40 years old or older, a good portion had completed graduate school, and 40 percent reported hauling in at least a six-figure annual salary. Yet many still said they felt as though they needed to defer to the doctor’s opinion, whether they agreed with it or not.

But, having confidence in a doctor isn’t a bad thing—in fact, it’s an essential part of the treatment process.

If you don’t feel like a doctor knows what they’re doing when it comes to your health, or that of your elderly loved one, how likely will you be to listen to that physician’s recommendations, or follow through with their suggested course of therapy?

Jones’ solution to this dilemma lies in re-thinking the traditional doctor-patient paradigm.

A physician is simply someone who has more experience with a certain category of knowledge than the average person does—much like how a teacher knows more about the subjects they teach than their students do.

Would you hesitate to ask a teacher to help you understand a difficult concept?

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Medicine: it can’t cure everything

Jones adds that another thing that gets in the way of doctor-patient dialogues is that people often have misdirected—sometimes blind—faith in medicine’s ability, as a discipline, to cure what ails them.

In truth, not every medical problem has a solution. This is something that doctors know, but may be difficult for their patients to recognize or accept.

“The challenge is that what medicine knows, it does not know with much certainty,” Jones says.

For doctors, it can be tricky to toe the line between making their patients feel comfortable and confident, while not unintentionally giving a person the false hope that a diagnosis is definitely correct, or that particular method of treatment always works.

When doctors and patients are resistant to open communication, that’s when serious mistakes get made, according to Jones. “We [doctors] are human. Our knowledge is about human biology, which is widely variable,” he admits, “If we’re going to be honest about that, it’s going to take a dialogue.”

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Talking to the man (or woman), not the myth

When it comes to communicating with a doctor, it’s not about whether or not you should ask a question—you should—it’s more about how you ask that question:

  • Keep it friendly and open-ended: Jones suggests trying to make your queries open-ended, and non-adversarial. “It’s about asking in a way that a good student might ask a teacher. You’re basically saying to the doctor, ‘Help me understand what you’re thinking.’”
  • One question at a time: Jones recommends trying to limit yourself to a single inquiry that will hopefully spark a short dialogue with the doctor. For example, if you’ve gotten all the information about the treatment plan your doctor suggests, and you’re still not totally comfortable with it, you may respond with something like, “What other options did you think about?” You can definitely ask a few follow-up questions, but remember that keeping the discussion on topic will allow you to obtain the most helpful information in the quickest amount of time possible.
  • Don’t tolerate a timekeeper: As for the doctor’s time, while certainly limited and valuable, Jones says you should be wary of any physician who won’t take a few minutes to talk to you. According to him, “The concept that doctors don’t have time is a fabricated concept. They’re busy but, doctors have the same 24 hours a day that everyone else does.”
  • Internet savvy: Jones says you can feel free to bring in information you found on the Internet, if you wish. Just remember that some Internet-based medical materials are actually advertisements in disguise. Tell the doctor what you learned and then ask, “What do you think about this information?”

It’s true that talking to a doctor may never be a truly “comfortable” experience, particularly when you are facing a complicated health concern. But, as Jones says, it’s important for people to, “invite their physician down from the pedestal.”

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Dale Overall

Most of my family doctors have been very easy to talk to, very generous with their time and always asking me if there was "anything else?" after I had finished with the present problem/s.

There was only one family doctor who was insufferable and that was a doctor from Iraq. He was not patient friendly and once when I had brought a list of my symptoms and was worried that it was something that I had, doing some research from the internet, he took my list away and asked me to list my symptoms from memory. That somewhat floored me and made me nervous, I could not remember them all which is often why I write things down. He did not approve of patients doing research and preparing lists. Not exactly the Dr. Oz. school of tolerance.

Several other patients of acquaintances also had him and they did not care for his manner either and after a year he had another job about an hour from where he practiced and I was not sorry to see him leave. Some specialists can be very overbearing as well.

Gloria H.
Gloria H5 years ago

I go to the low cost clinic and have had wonderful nurse practioners and doctors. They are definately not working there for the money.

Christina Robertson
Tina Robertson5 years ago

My doctor put me on a medication that helped my fibromyalgia, but gave me some very bad side effects, so I asked her if I could reduce the dosage. She told me that it would take 3-4 months to slowly reduce the dosage, as it was too dangerous to come off it quickly. Two weeks later she told me it was OK to come off it "cold turkey " and wait a week or so to go onto a different medication. I came off the prescription and within one day went into serious withdrawal, which lasted over 3 weeks and 2 trips to the emergency room.
I told her that she gave me conflicting information, whereupon she told me that perhaps I should find another doctor (almost impossible in Toronto, Canada) and followed up by saying she would no longer be my GP.......I was stunned. I think she was scared that I would report her to the Ontario Medical Board and she might be investigated, she is a practising doctor here but her schooling was done in Europe ( may or may not be a factor).
I am now in a position where I have to find another doctor and pay to get a copies of my files sent to a new doctor. Makes you think you are better off without a doctor or just going to a walk in clinic or checking yourself online !!!!

Winn Adams
Winn A5 years ago

It's extremely important to be honest with your nurse practitioner or doctor. They can't help you completely if you don't give them the facts.

Joe R.
Joe R5 years ago

"... it’s important for people to, “invite their physician down from the pedestal.”"

It's important that physicians don't put themselves up on a pedestal. If you're scared of your doctor - shop around. There are plenty of good ones out there that will treat you well.

Betsy M.
Betsy M5 years ago

I do not share with my MD. It is a knowledge and experience based decision, not fear.

Duane B.
.5 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Suzanne L.
Suzanne L5 years ago

My family doctor - yes. She's very busy and when I go to see her I feel like I'm bothering her.

Teresa Wlosowicz
Teresa W5 years ago


J.L. A.
JL A5 years ago

our doctors also are gatekeepers to various diagnostic, care and treatment options and thus there is never a sense of equal power