The Importance Of The Doctor/Patient Relationship When You Have A Chronic Illness
When you have a chronic illness, you spend a lot of time with doctors. A lot. I have a minimum of two medical appointments a month, but there are months where I have up to eight appointments in a month. Aside from the financial aspect (each appointment co-pay is $20), that’s a lot of personal time committed to someone.
Before I had a chronic illness, I rarely went to the doctor. It really didn’t matter who my doctor was, since I only saw her once a year (at most) for an allergy medication prescription. Now, I know how important it is to have a team of medical doctors that are right for you.
Finding The Right Doctor For Your Chronic Illness
If you are newly diagnosed with a chronic illness, or have to switch doctors due to insurance changes, here are some of my tips for finding the right doctor for your chronic illness.
Unfortunately, the way our health system works, your choices may be limited due to insurance or availability. In that case, you may need to settle for the best option available to you. That doesn’t mean you can’t push for better treatment options or better care, it just means that you may not find a doctor who checks all the boxes. Don’t be afraid to leave a mediocre practice if you are unhappy. You aren’t married to your doctor!
Start with the general practitioner.
I can’t express enough how important a good general practitioner is. I LOVE my general practitioner. I trust her judgment and appreciate that she watches out for my overall wellness. That being said, she isn’t for everyone. My husband doesn’t like her as his doctor because she is very direct. He wants a little more of a nurturing bedside manner, while I appreciate a doctor who gives me the information I need without sugar coating it. Finding a general practitioner whose personality and skill fits your needs is important when you have a chronic illness.
Find the right specialist.
This is a bit tougher to do since your choices are limited by insurance and available specialists. That being said, try to find the best fit within your limitations. You’ll spend a lot of time with your specialist. I go to the rheumatologist every three months when I’m not in an active flare and as often as every two weeks when I am struggling. That is a lot of time with a doctor.
With a chronic illness, you’ll likely stick with your specialist for years, maybe decades. You don’t want to have to frequently see someone whose you don’t like. For example, my first rheumatologist left the practice after six years. I was devastated. It took me several visits to gel with my current rheumatologist but now I really like her.
In addition to making sure your personalities gel, you want a specialist whose medical philosophy meshes with your ideal treatment. For example, my first rheumatologist was very science driven and fully relied on medication, not lifestyle changes. He flat out said that if I wanted to take a supplement, it was fine but he didn’t really think it mattered either way. At the time, I had a very similar mindset so it worked for me. My current rheumatologist is more holistic and open to naturopathic treatments and Eastern medicine. Nine years ago, that would have been off-putting to me, but after living with a chronic illness for years, I’m much more open to alternative treatments.
Consider the office staff.
When you go to the doctor as often as I do, it’s important that the office staff is good. Do they help you schedule/reschedule appointments? Do they assist with insurance issues? This is huge when you have specialty prescriptions. Every single time I need to switch medication, my doctor’s office has to go back and forth with my insurance company for weeks to get medication approved (that is a whole vent in and of itself).
Sometimes a great doctor can have terrible staff. For example, my OBGYN is fantastic. I love her. She delivered both of my sons. That being said, her staff is terrible. The nurse has lost blood work on more than one occasion. Since I only go to her for my annual checkup and when I had my babies, I was willing to overlook the staff issues and stick with my doctor. I would not be able to overlook that with a rheumatology office since I am there so often and have so much more to keep track of (prescriptions, exams, etc.).
Your doctor’s support staff is critical to your care. They are the ones who pass on messages, follow up on prescriptions and process results. This isn’t an area to overlook.
Qualities Of A Good Chronic Illness Care Team
A good friend of mine also has a chronic illness and we like to joke that we will live a long, long time because we have an army of doctors managing our care. We’re really only half-joking. I recently had a cancer scare and I consulted more than one of my doctors on how I should proceed with care. Fortunately for me, they were all on the same page so making a treatment decision wasn’t difficult. When you have chronic health issues, you need to be able to trust your team.
Here are some of my favorite doctor qualities:
- Compassionate. This seems like a no brainer, but you’d be amazed by how many times I’ve heard of doctors dismissing patient concerns or pain.
- Up-to-date. There are constantly new treatments or medical findings and it is important that your doctor is up-to-date on what is new with your condition. In my case, many medications for Ankylosing Spondylitis start out as treatment for Rheumatoid Arthritis first so my doctor needs to stay on top of when they are approved for my condition since my insurance won’t approve treatment otherwise.
- Willing to jump through hoops. When you have a chronic illness, you will at some point have a medication or treatment denied by your insurance. You want to a doctor/medical office that will fight back to make sure you get what you need. In some cases, it can take weeks to get a treatment approved and you want someone who will fight for you since many times, the insurance company will only deal with the doctor’s office. My doctor’s office has gone to bat for me on several occasions while my niece’s doctor passed off the task to my sister-in-law. It led to additional weeks of fighting with the insurance company since they wanted to deal with the doctor, who didn’t want to deal with it.
- Open to new ideas/treatments. I really appreciate that my rheumatologist is open to various treatments and alternative methods. In fact, many times, she will try things herself before recommending it to patients. Chronic illnesses are complicated and difficult to manage so it is helpful to have doctors who are open to a variety of treatment options.
If you are dealing with a chronic illness, you know how important it is to have a good medical support team. I truly view my doctors as my teammates. I spend a lot of time in their care and have come to know them as people. It is the best case scenario if I have to deal with having a chronic illness. I hope anyone dealing with a chronic illness has the same experience.