Bringing a friend or family member on doctor’s appointments

by Diana E. Lee

Most of the resources I’ve read about how to prepare for a doctor’s appointment recommend bringing a loved one with you so that person can help you remember what the doctor said and make sure you get your questions and concerns addressed.

But when I read Paula Kamen’s book All in My Head: An Epic Quest to Cure an Unrelenting, Totally Unreasonable and Only Slightly Enlightening HeadacheBringing a friend or family member on doctors appointments, I was surprised to learn about the negative conclusions one of her doctors drew about her emotional stability based on her decision to bring her mother with her to her appointments.

On page 87 of her book, Kamen describes the contents of a letter written by one of her former doctors.

It turned out he thought I was behaving erratically and mistakenly believed that I had not even tried the drug he had prescribed. He also interpreted my financial dependence as some kind of motivation for the so-called pain. And he saw the presence of my mother—oh, the poor mother, always an object of blame in psychoanalytic theory—as signaling some kind of warped and stifling relationship, instead of one human helping out another in need.

I think Kamen’s experience begs the question of whether you do yourself more harm than good by bringing a close friend or family member with you to your appointments. Obviously, you need to make sure you pick the right kind of person to come with you. Don’t choose someone who is known to interrupt people or talk over them. Don’t choose someone who might be combative or difficult to deal with. Choose someone who understands his or her role in being there and is willing and able to fulfill that role.

I usually take someone with me to out of town doctor’s appointments because I never know if I will feel up to driving myself. Sometimes I also receive treatments that require someone to drive me home. My husband can’t easily get away from work because he works for himself and is trying to get established in his field, so either my mom or dad (or both) comes with me. They are the perfect type of people to bring with you. They pay close attention to what is being said, but don’t interrupt. They are patient with the sometimes long waits and never act put out when plans change on the fly. I really don’t have any qualms about taking my mom, dad or husband with me to appointments regardless of what a doctor might think of me or them. It’s a necessity and stressing out about it doesn’t change that.

Do you bring a loved one with you to your doctor’s appointments? Have the results been good or bad or a little of both?

Diana E. Lee is a chronic migraine patient who blogs at Somebody Heal Me.

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  • Finn

    I brought a close friend with me for a diagnostic mammogram because it was my first mammo & I was rather nervous because of a family history of breast cancerr. The tech reacted badly, trying to insist that my friend stay in the waiting room and acting pissed off because I wanted a friend in the room while we talked (not during the actual mammography, of course).

    On another occasion at a different hospital, I accompanied the same friend to her appointment for gastric endoscopy. When the nurse trying to start her IV missed & proceeded to rummage around with the needle trying to find the vein, thereby provoking a vagal reaction, she tried to throw me out of the room even though I had stepped back by my friend’s head to be sure I was out of the way. I asked my friend if she wanted me there and she said yes, so I told the nurse I wasn’t leaving & put my cold hands on my friend’s forehead and cheek, knowing it would make her feel better and reduce her nausea. The nurse was furious that I didn’t obey her “order.”

    More recently when I went through workup, diagnosis, and treatment for cancer, I went alone, partly because it’s my preference and partly because I didn’t want to deal with negative reactions to my having someone along. I just brought a notebook so I’d remember what questions I wanted to ask & could write down what my doctors told me. I was the only unaccompanied patient in the chemo room, a location where apparently they expect you to bring someone with you.

  • Chris

    @Finn

    Unfortunately, it seems that many in the health care professions forget about the “care” part. I find it especially disturbing that it even comes from the nurses directly to an individual accompanying a patient. Personally, I would have filed a complaint with the hospital for gross unprofessionalism and disregard for the patient’s well-being.

  • Justin

    If I was doing psychotherapy, more than one person would be couples counseling.

  • Vox Rusticus

    Like with everything, the appropriateness of having a family member or friend present depends on the circumstances. If the accompanying person is not disruptive, I can’t see any harm. I have rarely had some guests of patients behave in a hostile way (nothing we could have done, it was certainly our first encounter and they were treated well beforehand by my staff–they just seemed hostile and suspicious) where their presence did nothing to reassure and may have added a negative tone to the visit. I have never had to ask that a patient bring a different person on future visits.

    Family and friends are not allowed to be present for procedures; that is my only strong rule. Patients who insist differently are asked to find another doctor.

    • J.T. Wenting

      A lot of doctors think patients bring someone with them because they don’t trust the doctor, see it as a personal attack against their integrity.

      And quite a few patients pick up on that and distrust doctors who behave in such a fashion, reinforcing each other.

      Personally, I’ve not had someone with me since I’m no longer a child. But now that my father’s hearing is very bad he needs someone there to make sure he understands what’s being said (or rather, that someone understands).
      And that might include during a (non-surgical) procedure like X-rays.

      • HJ

        “Family and friends are not allowed to be present for procedures; that is my only strong rule.”

        I recently had a procedure (a somewhat painful one)done and the doctor asked if I wanted my spouse to be present for moral support.

  • family practitioner

    I have absolutely no problem with family or friends in the room (it is called family practice after all).

    However, many times this friend/family member interjects their own issues, ie squeezing in a question about their own health.

    Also, be there to assist your friend; don’t play “devil’s advocate”. True examples: a friend telling the patient how unpleasant her colonoscopy was, right after I recommended one. Or saying how painful mammograms are. Or how the flu shot made them sick once. Or saying how traditional medicine should not be trusted. Or telling a patient that they need to go to “the city” for further care. All of these, and then some, have occurred during my years of practice.

  • stargirl65

    I often have patients bring a friend/family member to their appointments. For the most part I find it helpful. But for some it seems awkward. Older people, people with complicated medical problems, teens and children, and very ill people seem appropriate. What seems unusual is the healthy 30-40 something who has her husband come with her for a routine physical and pap smear. We are not talking a pregnant woman where the partner wants to see or hear the baby, just a routine exam. Or couples who come in for their bp checks together and want to be seen together. I just find it odd.

  • http://participatorymedicine.org e-Patient Dave

    Good heavens, I’m surprised at this. (Not mad, surprised.) Isn’t it axiomatic that people *routinely* forget 40-60% of what they hear in the doctor’s office??

    I know in my father’s final years (long before he became enfeebled) we learned this the hard way. He’d been a sales VP at 3M in his career and was a leader in the neighborhood association – no social dummy – but he simply could not come away with a clear picture of the doctor’s advice. Mom and sister Amy became the reliable second set of ears. (And note takers, reliably conveying info at the next referral, because the next doc routinely had no frickin clue about this new patient’s real status.)

    Then there’s this week’s Annals of Internal Medicine article on how doctors say one thing and patients hear another. (Boston Globe layman’s version here; the article fails to note that the abstract says this was a very small sample.)

    Is this because patients are naive idiots? I think not: at an evening meeting at Mt Auburn Hospital last year, hosted by Liz Walker, I recall hearing Jim Conway (of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement) describe how he himself blanked out in the doctor visit where he learned he was diabetic.

    I agree that it wouldn’t be fair play for a companion to hijack the visit for their own purposes. But I often hear that compliance (patients doing what they were advised) is a big factor in successful care, and the Annals piece seems to give a glimpse into a key failure mechanism: in a short visit, it’s hard to be sure information was clearly conveyed.

    If our goal is to do care better – for *everyone’s* satisfaction & benefit – it seems a second set of eyes and ears could be useful, if properly applied.

  • Janet

    My husband and I attend each other’s doctors appointments regardless of the reason for the visit. We are each other’s advocate and set of ears. We are also there to insure that nothing inappropriate happens at the doctor’s office. (Yes this does happen and much more frequently than people assume.)

    It amazes me at how much control the medical profession insists on having with their clients (the patient). We pay the bills but have very little say on what happens. When a client (patient) is counseled about medical procedures it needs to be done in a manner that allows the client (patient) to rationally and calmly decide if they want the procedure without feeling pressure to have it done.

    Surprisingly it is not only the doctors who pressure people to go to visits (especially annual/regular visits) unattended but by non-medical people. I wonder why that is?

    • Tony

      “We are also there to insure that nothing inappropriate happens at the doctor’s office. (Yes this does happen and much more frequently than people assume.)”

      What has happened?

      “It amazes me at how much control the medical profession insists on having with their clients (the patient). ”

      You aren’t required to see a doctor you do not like. Just see someone who runs their practice according to your standards.

  • Lisa

    I have metastatic cancer, and I try to have my husband accompany me on the first couple of appointments with each new surgeon or oncologist. I don’t need him there to take notes or for moral support, but I want him to be at least somewhat acquainted with each of my doctors. That way he can develop his own sense of trust in them and later he will know who I am talking about when I say, “Dr. So-and-so recommended I do XYZ treatment.”

    I actually find my husband’s presence in the exam room a little distracting; it’s harder for me to have a three-way conversation than a two-way one. Still, it’s worth it to me to have him there at the beginning of a new doctor relationship. My doctors are hugely important to both of us, so my husband needs some way to get to know them too. I think a few of my doctors have found this odd. They’ve later made remarks suggesting that my husband was being amusingly overprotective by coming with me.

  • Amigan

    I don’t have anyone I’d want to take to a doctor’s appointment with me but once did take someone along for a diagnostic mammogram. Procedures are exactly where I would MOST want support! It’s very isolating to be alone while someone you don’t know is doing something to your body.

    It’s interesting that veterinary practice has changed along these same lines, and not to my liking. My old-style vet did everything to an animal in front of me and often with my assistance, except surgery. Once he retired, I have a new vet I like very much, except for her office’s insistence that even the most minor procedure be done in the back office out of my sight. I hate that and also think it is harder on the animal, but know I cannot change it, and since MOST vets now work this way don’t see a good option unless that was the single most important thing to me.

    What happened that these customs are so drastically different over time (and that human medicine and veterinary medicine are in sync on this)? I don’t know, but I do know that I feel very much a “patient” in the medical system as so often one has no choice really and is simply acted upon according to norms someone else decides.

  • gzuckier

    As previously mentioned, it is often valuable to have a somewhat more disinterested party to provide another set of ears and to keep a checklist of topics that need discussion. Often, there is need for kind of an interpreter, particularly with a person with little or no medical understanding. Also, often an older person comes from a tradition where you just agree with whatever the doctor suggests, no matter if it is wrong, so you see situations where the patient doesnn’t mention something bothering him/her, the doctor says “well you seem in pretty good shape” and the patient then agrees and decides to stifle the complaint, instead of seeing it as an opening for discussion.

    On the other hand, another patient can kind of inhibit frank discussion sometimes. “You’re putting on a lot of weight” “Well, my wife is a greasy cook. Oops, sorry honey”

  • Lila

    As a sonographer who travels to many different offices, I take care of all types of patients: some less educated than others, some less comfortable than others and some with poorer memory or communication skills. All of these are reasons to “allow” a family member to attend the ultrasound exam. If I have the “buttinski type of friend/family member, I gently steer the conversation (about risk factors/history etc) back to the patient. The benefits gained from additional history or patient comfort far outweigh any inconvenience that I may experience.
    LilaD

  • http://www.liz4cps.com liz4cps

    I am saddened to hear that some doctors view bringing support with suspicion. I think the reason someone goes along has more to do with the patient than with the doctor — like a Parkinson’s patient that talks so slowly, they have trouble saying all they want to, a chronic illness patient who does not yet have a diagnosis or an effective treatment, or anyone who has something complicated going on. All of this can be stressful and it can help to have support just for that reason.

    So, for any doctors reading here, some of us know we need such support sometimes. That’s not a sign of weakness on our parts, nor of stupidity. It’s smart to get the help you need, the way you need to.