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Be a good patient in 5 easy steps

Posted by Dr. Suzanne Koven  May 20, 2012 01:48 PM

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doctor-examining-a-patient-clip-art_433473.jpgI'm currently having a chance to do one of my least favorite things: be a patient. And the whole time, I'm missing no opportunity to declare what a bad patient I am. "I'm sorry I'm such a bad patient," I said to the phlebotomist when I winced as she drew my blood. "I know I'm a bad patient," I said to the x-ray technician who re-positioned my fractured arm. "We doctors are the worst patients," I said to the physician whose advice I questioned.

But am I really such a bad patient? Is a good patient simply one who never complains or disagrees?

Since the goal of every patient is to get well as soon as possible (i.e. ideally, not to be a patient), then being a "good" patient means acting in ways that serve this goal. If complaining and disagreeing help you get better faster, then by all means go ahead, whether or not it pleases your caregivers.

Most of the time, though, being a good patient involves doing things that help both the patient and the clinician. Here are my top 5:

1) Be honest. Your doctor can help you better if he or she knows what's really bothering you; how much you really smoke, drink, or eat; whether you've stopped taking your medication because of side effects or expense; whether you're going through a stressful experience that's affecting your physical health. Write things down or bring a friend or family member to your medical appointment to help you be more thorough in giving (and receiving) information.

2) Be on time. I know, I know...doctors often keep patients waiting, sometimes abominably long. Sometimes this is the doctors' fault. Sometimes it's not. One common reason a doctor runs late is that he or she is accommodating patients who arrive late. This can throw a whole day's schedule out of whack. If you're stuck in traffic once or twice, okay. If you're routinely an hour late (yes, this happens) you're compromising the quality of your (and others') time with the doctor.

3) Be nice. No one blames someone who's sick for being a little cranky. But nasty comments to medical assistants and secretaries and casual threats of lawsuits will probably not improve your care and, though they may make you feel a little better in the short term, will likely make you feel rotten later.

4) Be informed. No, it's not your job to keep track of every last detail of your medical history or, certainly, to know everything there is to know about your medical conditions. But with a little effort, you can be a more effective advocate for yourself. Have a current list of your medications handy, as well as phone numbers of your doctors and pharmacies plus a basic list of your medical problems, surgeries, and allergies. Read about your medical issues and about diet, exercise, and other issues relevant to your health. Websites such as the American Cancer Society and the American Heart Association have tons of information. Understand, though, that everything you read on the Internet (including here!) doesn't necessarily apply to you individually.

5) Be patient. Yes, pun intended. The word "patient" comes from the Latin term for "one who suffers." Being a patient and being patient both involve suffering--even if that suffering is simply waiting. Waiting isn't something we're very good at anymore. But, more often than we'd like to think, recovery and even correct diagnosis take their own sweet time, ignoring our work schedules, travel plans, discomfort, and... impatience. Talk with your doctor about ways to feel better while you're waiting to get better.

Be honest, be on time, be nice, be informed, be patient. It's good advice.

And now, I'm going to try to take it.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Suzanne Koven, M.D. practices internal medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. She writes a monthly column for the Globe's G Health section and her essays have appeared in the More »

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