A Letter to Patients With Chronic Disease by Dr. Rob Lamberts
This is a re-post of a wonderful essay from a few years ago that delves into the reasons for the lack of understanding and empathy between doctors and their patients with chronic illness. He gives good advice for how we pain patients can approach our doctors to get them on our side, instead of alienating them.
Dear Patients: You have it very hard, much harder than most people understand. Having sat for 16 years listening to the stories, seeing the tiredness in your eyes, hearing you try to describe the indescribable, I have come to understand that I too can’t understand what your lives are like. How do you answer the question, “how do you feel?” when you’ve forgotten what “normal” feels like? How do you deal with all of the people who think you are exaggerating your pain, your emotions, your fatigue?
There is something that you need to understand that, while it won’t undo your pain, make your fatigue go away, or lift your emotions, it will help you. It’s information without which you bring yourself more pain than you need suffer; it’s a truth that is a key to getting the help you need much easier than you have in the past. It may not seem important, but trust me, it is.
You scare doctors.
We want to cure disease, to save lives, to be the helping hand, the right person in the right place at the right time
But chronic unsolvable disease stands square in our way. You don’t get better, and it makes many of us frustrated, and it makes some of us mad at you. We don’t want to face things we can’t fix because it shows our limits. We want the miraculous, and you deny us that chance.
When we take care of you, we have to leave behind the illusion of control, of power over disease. We get angry, feel insecure, and want to move on to a patient who we can fix, save, or impress. You are the rock that proves how easily the ship can be sunk.
Then there is the fact that you also possess something that is usually our domain: knowledge. You know more about your disease than many of us do – most of us do.
So you possess deep understanding of something that many doctors don’t possess. Even doctors who specialize in your disorder don’t share the kind of knowledge you can only get through living with a disease.
So when you approach a doctor – especially one you’ve never met before – you come with a knowledge of your disease that they don’t have, and a knowledge of the doctor’s limitations that few other patients have. You see why you scare doctors?
It’s not your fault that you do, but ignoring this fact will limit the help you can only get from them.
There are some things you can do to make things easier, and others that can sabotage any hope of a good relationship:
- Don’t come on too strong – yes, you have to advocate for yourself, but remember that doctors are used to being in control.
- Show respect – I say this one carefully, because there are certainly some doctors who don’t treat patients with respect – especially ones like you with chronic disease. These doctors should be avoided. But most of us are not like that; we really want to help people and try to treat them well.
- Keep your eggs in only a few baskets – find a good primary care doctor and a couple of specialists you trust. Don’t expect a new doctor to figure things out quickly. It takes me years of repeated visits to really understand many of my chronic disease patients.
- Use the ER only when absolutely needed – Emergency room physicians will always struggle with you. Just expect that.
- Don’t avoid doctors – one of the most frustrating things for me is when a complicated patient comes in after a long absence with a huge list of problems they want me to address.
- It’s OK to keep a list of your own problems so things don’t get left out – I actually like getting those lists, as long as people don’t expect me to handle all of the problems. It helps me to prioritize with them.
- Don’t put up with the jerks – unless you have no choice (in the ER, for example), you should keep looking until you find the right doctor(s) for you. Some docs are not cut out for chronic disease, while some of us like the long-term relationship.
- Forgive us – Sometimes I forget about important things in my patients’ lives.
- Be patient with me – I usually know when I’ve messed up, and if you know me well I don’t mind being reminded. Well, maybe I mind it a little.
You know better than anyone that we docs are just people – with all the stupidity, inconsistency, and fallibility that goes with that – who happen to doctor for a living. I hope this helps, and I really hope you get the help you need. It does suck that you have your problem; I just hope this perhaps decreases that suckishness a little bit.
Post Script: This post has generated a huge amount of conversation and interest (as witnessed by the large number of comments!). I very much appreciate the dialogue it has spawned both here and across the web. I’ve subsequently written follow-up posts explaining my thoughts in more detail – largely in response to the comments here. One of them discusses in more detail myown experiences as a doctor and the second talks of the importance of knowing and being known. Reading these will give you a better picture of my thought process and perspective on this.Dr. Rob