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I'm a Physician and Wish Every Patient Knew These Things

Make sure you will get the best out of each visit.
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

Doctors often receive a lot of respect for their training, experience and compassion. Yet doctors are people, too, who sometimes automatically do and say things during a visit that may not sit right with you. Many people feel funny questioning their doctor or pushing back on what they're being asked to do. (I was raised by strict Catholic parents, and not talking back to authority figures was a big part of my upbringing.) But you have more rights in the doctor's office than you may realize. Those rights include being able to ask questions when you need to—especially to ensure you understand and can make the choices you need to. If you've ever put off going to the doctor because you felt uncomfortable, read on for how to take the power back and have an overall better experience in your doctor's office—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.


You Can Keep Your Clothes On

Businessman reading a newspaper and leaning on the frame of a door

Many people find it easier to talk to their doctor when they're not cold or worrying about their medical gown slipping. In fact, even I find it hard to pay attention when I'm half-naked, and I think many of my patients feel the same way. So, good news: At your visit, you can stay dressed until it's time for the exam. 

And if you don't want an exam? Then you can stay dressed the whole time. You have the right to decline an exam if you don't want one; not every visit to the doctor, including an OB-GYN, requires getting undressed. If you aren't having any pelvic issues and aren't due for a Pap test, you don't have to have a "routine" pelvic exam that requires undressing.


It's Important to Understand the Tests You're Having

patient consulting with doctor on tablet

Talk with your doctor about the tests being ordered for you. Why are you getting them, and what will they show? This includes swabs taken in the office and blood tests in a lab. And don't assume that every pelvic exam includes a Pap test—most of them don't, so ask if one is being done.

Besides knowing what tests you're getting, ask why they're being done. Are they routine? Does your doctor think there might be a problem? Knowing why your doctor is ordering certain tests will help you understand what the results mean. 

Speaking of results, ask what to expect after your tests. How will you receive your test results, and when should you expect to get them? Will you need to come back to your doctor's office? You may get a letter in the mail or access your results from an online portal. Ask that you receive your results whether they indicate a problem or everything's OK.

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Get the "Why" Behind Your Doctor's Recommendations

man pointing at the notes and asking a question to his therapist while having a psychological session

Sometimes a doctor's recommendations are based in good science, and the path forward is clear—think taking medication to lower your high blood pressure or high blood sugar. Other recommendations are based on expert opinion, where there isn't a clear answer based on research, but many smart minds have made recommendations about a subject. For example, my doctors have told me to cut back on caffeine due to my kidney disease. I asked if there were randomized trials to show I HAD to give up Diet Coke. They looked at me strangely and told me it's the opinion of all kidney doctors, everywhere. (Sigh.) 

But sometimes, a doctor's recommendation comes down to personal opinion. This isn't always bad—if I see many patients struggling with a problem, like heavy or painful periods, I may recommend a course of action that has worked for others. But your doctor may have opinions based on values or preferences that are different than yours. It's OK to ask why your doctor is making a recommendation for you.

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You Can Refuse Any Recommendation

patient of counselor explaining her problem to doctor while sitting on couch in front of him


You are the one who knows best how to balance your medical care and your life. For example, you may feel that surgery isn't right for you. Or that the side effects of a medication aren't ones that you're willing to put up with. You may not want the procedure or the prescription or even the birth control method that your doctor recommends. All of this is OK, no matter what your doctor thinks. (Even if your doctor seems disappointed.) Be honest about your feelings, preferences, and values. Your doctor should work with you to find a plan that works with your life.

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You Have a Right to See All Your Records

Female doctor using medical form on clipboard closeup


When you're transferring your care to a new doctor, it's a great idea to bring a copy of your former records. But you don't have to be moving or leaving your doctor to look at your records. Congress passed a law giving you the right to see all your records, including your doctor's notes.

Some offices allow you to see your records on an online portal, a great way to have your records and results at your fingertips whenever you want them. Other offices may need to photocopy your records for you, and you may have to pay a small fee.


Doctors Hate Not Looking at You More During a Visit

Distraught senior man sitting at hospital waiting room while female doctor is holding his hand and comforting him

Many doctors are trying to type everything you say, plus what they're saying, into the computer. They may be seeing 30, 40 or more patients in a given day, and they don't want to forget what they're thinking in your appointment when they come back to finish their note later. Plus, electronic medical records are tough taskmasters. They demand many fields to go through and boxes to check. So, it's common for doctors to not make eye contact with you enough during your visit. We are so sorry for this. Please know that it isn't personal. We will do our best, but please understand where we're coming from. And tell us if it bothers you.


You Can Fire Your Doctor

Aggressive man yelling at nurse in clinic

If you were raised to be polite and avoid hurting someone's feelings, it can feel strange to choose to seek care elsewhere. But in the same way that you don't go back to a hair stylist who doesn't listen to you, you shouldn't go back to a doctor who makes you feel disrespected or that you're not being listened to. You should feel like an equal partner in your care – and not like a child who needs to be obedient.

Your health and well-being are too important not to make sure you're getting what you need from your health care provider. Keeping these points in mind will help ensure you're getting the care you need, when and how you need it.

Kate White, M.D., M.P.H., OB-GYN
Kate White, M.D., M.P.H., OB-GYN, is an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the Boston University School of Medicine and the vice chair of academics in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Boston Medical Center. Read more about Kate
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