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Why won’t my doctor listen to me?

by Nurse Jill

We’ve all been there. Sitting in a clinic room discussing a concern with our doctor and then walking out of the building … disappointed. Aren’t doctors (and their counterparts) supposed to *fix* us?! Why, then, do we sometimes come away feeling as if we were not heard?

Here are 4 reasons your healthcare chats may fall flat:

1. Previous medical advice wasn’t followed. It may seem unfair but its true: if you didn’t follow the advice of your doctor the last time you visited they may presume that you won’t follow their advice this time. The healthcare system sometimes applies a label of “uncooperative” or “non-compliant” to these situations which is helpful for clinicians to know when considering which treatment options to propose. However, it can definitely stagnate your attempts to get another concern heard.

What you can do: Have a good reason. Make sure that if you have declined to participate in a treatment option in the past that you’ve done your research with credible sources (not just your good ol’ Aunt Shirley) and communicate to your providers your reason for not going the route they have suggested even if it means that you have chosen to live with chronic symptoms. Once they understand your reasoning and resolve they should be able to move on to other options and other concerns.

2. Language barrier. The world of medicine has a language all its own and, depending on the specialty you’ve found yourself in, it can be quite overwhelming. Compounding this original language barrier is the reality that many people have difficulty accurately describing their symptoms. (Go ahead, try to think of a different way to say, “My belly hurts.”) This can make a conversation between patient and practitioner challenging at best and impossible at worst.

What you can do: Find a translator or advocate. Many a nurse have found themselves intervening in these conversations to translate medical jargon to common English and vice-versa. But even just bringing a friend to your appointments can help provide insight into what each party is trying to communicate. The objective party can help hear and clarify points of concern.

3. Time. It is no surprise that doctors are pressed for time. It seems that there are fewer doctors and more patients every year. A 15-minute sit-time for a visit with an established patient is commonplace in clinics. Can you articulate your needs in such a short time? Perhaps… but the real issue with time is the effort needed to do cross-checking with all your other health history. To dig through an electronic chart looking for procedures, past treatments, medications, diagnosis, and other pertinent information can quickly eat away at that 15 minute boundary even when you are well established with a clinic. This can significantly decrease the efficacy of your conversation toward optimizing your health and solving current problems.

What you can do: It may seem redundant in our digital world but keeping your own notebook of your health history can be invaluable to you and your physicians. Make note of when you have significant symptoms, what seem to start them, what seemed to alleviate them, how long they lasted, if they have come and gone over years or just days. Keeping a history of different medications, procedures, and medical opinions offered to you can also be extremely helpful for your current situation. Your insight into your own health over the years, in some senses, can be better than objective electronic health records. As the years add up it gets harder to remember accurately - the notebook will do it for you.

4. The wrong problem. Your doctors (and other practitioners) are highly trained and knowledgeable problem-solvers. They hone in on what they hear is the problem and then give you the solution. One of the most satisfying parts of being in healthcare is that you can make people feel better and solve their problems! What if the main identifiable problem is not your main concern? What if the sage life advice they give you isn’t what you came to hear? Communication can break down and concerns left unaddressed when your focus doesn’t match the doctor’s focus.

What you can do: Acknowledge and redirect. A lot of times doctors can pick out alarming problems that sincerely need to be addressed in your health and we should listen to those! Sometimes, though, they hone in on a diagnosis that are is about lifestyle than life saving. Acknowledge these and then redirect to the concern you want to focus on. An example: “I understand, Dr. Smith, that my cholesterol is a bit high and I will think about the medication you offered. I am more concerned about how I am frequently having stomach aches - what tests or treatments can we consider to address my stomachs problems?” Sometimes asking if you can “think on it” and call back with a decision is enough for them to move on to your true concern.

A final note: we are all human and have unique personalities. Having an ‘off’ appointment isn’t a deal breaker but if you walk away from most visits with your doctor feeling disconnected and unheard (even after utilizing these tips) it may be time to just move on. Finding a healthcare practitioner who understands your priorities and concerns is paramount to making sure you live your best life. It’s ok to find someone new who will partner with you in those goals. Tell them Nurse Jill said so.

If you have any questions for Nurse Jill, please email us at

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