What does it mean to be a good patient?

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As a healthcare writer, I often spend large chunks of the day reading about medical conditions. I often joke when starting work that it’s only a matter of time before I notice signs of the condition in myself. I remember being convinced I had gallstones for a while until I finished working on a gallbladder surgery multimedia program. Suddenly, the symptoms that had been preoccupying me for several weeks vanished.

I like to joke about my phantom gallstones when someone asks me about my job. But recently, I realized that deep down I may be more embarrassed and ashamed about it than amused. It’s really the only way I can explain why I suddenly found myself playing a role many men and women take on, to our own detriment: the “good” patient.

I’d made an appointment to see my regular doctor about some bothersome problems that I knew were not exactly life or death, but were bothering me nonetheless.  Unfortunately, when my doctor walked in the room, I immediately went into “good patient” mode.

I told myself that a good patient doesn’t overreact to small things. They don’t bring up things they’d read online, which worried them. A good patient accepted the doctor’s conclusions and didn’t push for more consideration.

My doctor asked what I’d come in for, and I started off with “Well, I know it’s not the biggest deal, but …” And she ended up agreeing with me. “It’s probably nothing,” she said. “It’ll probably go away on its own.” As she said it, I put on a fake smile. I nodded emphatically, as if to say, “Of course, I thought the same thing.” But in my head, I was thinking, “It’s not nothing. It won’t go away.” And when things were a little worse the next week, I picked up the phone and called a specialist.

At my appointment with the specialist, she listened to my problem. She said, “No, it’s not nothing. It’s something.” What I heard was “You’re not overreacting.” She gave me a treatment plan. I walked out of her office feeling vindicated. I thought, “This doctor really listens!” And to be honest, I lost a little bit of trust in my regular doctor.

But on the way home, I realized my regular doctor had listened to me, too. She listened to the story I gave her, which was not the complete truth.

I’d said, “I know this isn’t a big deal” when I meant “This is really bothering me.”

I’d said, “It comes and goes,” when I meant “I’m worried I’ll be dealing with this forever.”

I’d said, “I’m not sure there’s anything to be done,” when I meant “I’m embarrassed to be asking about this and I’m afraid you won’t be able to help.”

For my job, I talk to our medical advisors about the barriers to treatment a lot. We talk about expensive medications, complicated treatment plans, social stigmas, and many other things outside of the patient’s control. Those barriers are real and can be difficult to overcome.

But sometimes, we patients have internal barriers, too. To be truly empowered patients, we have to give ourselves permission to say what we really mean. At least that’s a barrier we do have control over.

Like I said, my problem wasn’t life or death, but one day, I’ll be talking to a doctor about a more serious problem. So now is the time to rehearse, to practice being the kind of patient I really want to be. The empowered patient. The honest patient. The patient who’s not afraid to say what she really thinks, even if she may be wrong or (gasp) overreacting. That’s what being a “good patient” really means.

Colleen Crone is a senior writer, Emmi Solutions.

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