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Tips for Navigating the Doctor-Patient Relationship

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Published on October 28, 2020

Doctor and Patient Discuss the Importance of Communication in Healthcare

How should you go about navigating a doctor-patient relationship? What questions should you and your care provider be asking each other to create good communication and mutual understanding? If you feel like your concerns aren’t being heard and you don’t “click” with your doctor, what should you do?  

Dr. Erika Hamilton, Director of the Breast Cancer and Gynecologic Cancer Research Program at Sarah Cannon Research Institute, host and breast cancer patient advocate Megan-Claire Chase, and breast cancer patient Sherry Hitt are here to answer all of your questions. Hear first-hand from a doctor and patient how they maintain a healthy and productive relationship while seeking out the best of care.  

This series is sponsored by Daiichi Sankyo. This organization has no editorial control. It is produced by Patient Power, and Patient Power is solely responsible for program content.

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Transcript | Tips for Navigating the Doctor-Patient Relationship

What Makes a Good Doctor-Patient Relationship?

Megan-Claire Chase: 
Sherry and Dr. Hamilton, can you talk about your patient-doctor relationship and how other patients can make that work? 

Dr. Hamilton: 

I think just having open communication. Knowing on both sides that we're going to communicate. I normally tell patients the very first visit I have, "I'm not going to keep anything from you. I'm here to help you in your care, but this is your care. They're your scans, they're your labs, it's your body. So, you have just as much right over any of that as I do." Understanding what their priorities are. It's not just how long you live, but it's the quality of that life. And so, what is it that you want to do? 

Sherry Hitt: 

And factoring into that is the trust factor. I know nothing about curing cancer, and I know that they do. And so, I'm going to listen. I'm going to do what they tell me to do. And should I have issues along the way, I do not hesitate to call them. In fact, I had a bad breakout with poison Ivy, and I called them, and I said, "Is there anything I shouldn't take because I'm about to go to a walk-in clinic on this one? And they said, "Oh, don't go to a walk-in clinic. We'll call you in something.” And they took care of me and I didn't even have to leave my house. They told me to go to Walgreens and pickup and how to do it all. It took a little bit, but I got over it.  

Dr. Hamilton: 

Sometimes I think patients, they don't want to bring up what's going wrong. They don't want to complain. And I think the first thing is really, for us as providers, is just giving our patients permission to do that, that we want to hear about how they're tolerating therapy. We want to know what the tough spots are, because sometimes we can make that better. Or if we can't make it better, there may be an alternative of something different they could take. So, I think the first thing is really open communication.

The thing I try to do a lot in exam rooms - some people don't particularly want to tell me what they're struggling with - is ask specific questions. Are you having any nausea? How is your energy level? Kind of really tease out a few things to let them know, "She really does want to hear about this. It's okay to volunteer how I'm feeling." And then the final thing is we now have supportive palliative care available in our clinic. So for our patients that are struggling with a lot of side effects, it's possible to meet with a provider that specializes in some of that. And so, I think that's an underutilized resource as well. There's a variety of things we can do to help tolerate medicines better. 

How to Improve Doctor-Patient Relationship

Megan-Claire Chase: 

It's so important that you have that trust with each other. What should patients do if they feel like they're not being heard, if that trust isn't built there? 

Dr. Hamilton: 

I personally am a fan of just being transparent. I mean, I think the first thing to say is, "Gosh, I just, I feel like we're, we're not on the same wavelength. How can we improve that?" and just see if it can be improved, right. Have that conversation, right. What's the harm in doing that, especially when it's something so important about your medical care that really serves as a big source of anxiety and daily worry, and it's really important. 

And then ultimately, I think if you don't have a fit with a certain provider, then find a different provider. I mean, not everybody's going to gel. If somebody doesn't gel with me and they can get along and feels more confident with one of my partners, I want them to be comfortable in their care. It's not my ego in the game. So, I think finding the best fit, that's a two-way street is really important. 

Megan-Claire Chase: 

Sherry, have you ever had that happen to you in the past where you were with a doctor and you didn't feel heard? And if so, what did you do about that? 

Sherry Hitt: 

I've had it happen one time. I'd been with a doctor for several years at primary care. And it was when all of this came back about five years ago and I continued to have the coughing. I mean, the non-stop coughing. I wasn't getting anywhere. And of course, I got sent to a specialist and all of this got uncovered. And I changed doctors. And this was a person I had trusted for many years and had helped me through blood pressure issues and just little things along the way. 

This time, it is so critical because we're talking about cancer here. We're not talking about a stubbed toe or poison ivy. And if I ever didn't feel that way, I would have to make a change because this is me, we're talking about. I've been very lucky. Before Dr. Hamilton, I had Dr. Lamar for a lot of years, and then she retired. But before that, she sent me on to Dr. Hamilton because she knew I needed that extra little bit of help. If somebody tried to take Dr. Hamilton from me now, no, we're not going to do that. 

Dr. Hamilton: 

I wouldn't let them, don't worry. It's a two-way street. 

Sherry Hitt: 

I think you have to do what's best for number one, just to be honest and selfish about it, you just have to. 

Please remember the opinions expressed on Patient Power are not necessarily the views of our sponsors, contributors, partners or Patient Power. Our discussions are not a substitute for seeking medical advice or care from your own doctor. That’s how you’ll get care that’s most appropriate for you.


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