How to Complain to Your Doctor, Part II

We began yesterday with the story of Nancy and her husband, and the obnoxious nurse and cold and aloof doctor who performed a prostate biopsy on Nancy’s husband. Her husband was humiliated by his treatment and Nancy wanted to let the doctor know about it.

My original suggestion to Nancy was that they needed to find a new doctor. This doctor and his nurse are not going to change their stripes.

Nancy, however, decided she wanted to let the doctor know how rudely her husband had been treated by the nurse, in hopes the doctor would speak to his nurse. So she wrote the doctor a letter.

Nancy contacted me a few days ago to say her husband doesn’t want her to mail the letter. He is afraid the doctor will not treat him any longer if she mails her letter.

So, Nancy asked me, what should she do?

I actually provided a number of thoughts to her as she considers next steps. Here they are:

  • At this point, Nancy and her husband need to think more in terms of how this nurse and doctor treat them, and less about how they treat others. As noble as it would be to “fix” them for others, it seems for now that their better efforts are concentrated on improving service to themselves.
  • Prostate “challenges” are something a man must live with for the rest of his life. In some ways, his conversations and experiences with his urologist will be more intimate than his conversations and experiences with his wife. Granted, he won’t have to see the urologist very often, but — he will have to trust the doctor implicitly to make the most effective recommendations for a long, and as healthy as possible, life.
  • Her husband has two choices. He can either find a doctor he does respect and does trust. Or he can work with this one to find that level of respect and trust that is so necessary.
  • Keep in mind that the best doctors don’t have to be the nice doctors. And the more specialized a doctor, the less he really needs to be nice. That’s just a fact of life! And remember, too, that nice does not equal skilled. There are thousands of “nice” doctors who aren’t good at what they do. And vice versa, there are thousands of very skilled doctors who just aren’t very nice.
  • In order to gain respect, we have to command respect. So perhaps the best approach for Nancy’s husband is to begin thinking like a consumer and less like a patient. For example — when the nurse took him into the room to prepare for the biopsy — her husband could have asked for a sheet or something as a cover. We don’t have to act like sheep — we can ask for what we need!
  • Her husband needs to look for ways to command what he needs — because sometimes that is all that is necessary to gain someone’s respect. For example — if you have to wait in the waiting room for a long time, ASK what is taking so long and suggest that you’ll need to make another appointment if they can’t get closer to the right time. Or — if the nurse says something rude, why not ask her if she’s having a bad day? That gives her a way to reconsider how she’s treating you. (Also, maybe the reason she is so foul is because the doctor treats HER like a second class citizen? That’s very common, I am told.)
  • The real point to all of this is that (as Dr. Phil says) we treat people how to treat us. If we don’t stick up for ourselves, we get run over. Knowing Nancy’s husband will have this lifetime relationship with his doctor, it only makes sense to begin immediately to change the tenor of that relationship to one of mutual respect, and not so much like a parent and child.

So, OK, I know these aren’t ways of complaining to your doctor — some bait and switch for which I apologize. But it’s to make a point.

I used to suggest to patients that they if they have problems with their doctors or the staff in the office, they spend some time explaining it to the doctor. But first one needs to gauge whether the doctor will be receptive to those kinds of comments — and receptive here means, will the doctor actually take steps to improve the situation? In some cases, that’s still appropriate.

In this case, though, and based on a half dozen emails with Nancy and dozens of other patients, it’s clear that very often, the real problem is more about defaulting to letting the doctor and staff control them, as opposed to proactively sticking up for themselves and commanding the respect they deserve.

Sharp patients — those with patientude — know that the relationship among a doctor, staff and patient should be respectful. When patients behave as if they expect that respect, then their chances of being treated respectfully will be much improved.

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2 thoughts on “How to Complain to Your Doctor, Part II”

  1. Look at it this way- Would Nancy’s husband recommend this doctor to a friend? If not, why continue to go. Maybe Nancy lives in a rural area, but it would it be worth going to another doctor or at least let this doctor know how they felt about the service they received.

    Was this biopsy done in a hospital or office? If hospital, then there would be a survey sent home to ask about care.

    Doctors are humans, not gods, they provide a service that you pay for, not out of the kindness of their hearts and should be able to handle criticism. Please let us know what Nancy and her husband end up doing.

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Trisha Torrey
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