Ronni Gordon is  a cancer survivor and long-time journalist who has written about her journey, about health and fitness, and about how she and others have prevailed in difficult situations. She brings to her writing a mix of personal experience with knowledge about the health-care system and how cancer patients can navigate it. A graduate of Vassar College with a master's degree in journalism from Boston University, she is a freelance writer who worked in daily newspapers for more than 30 years. She has been published in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Dana FarberCancer Institute magazine, and Cancer Today magazine. She lives in Western Massachusetts with her dog, Maddie, short for Madison (Avenue) in honor of her hometown, New York, and is mother of three grown children, Ben, Joe, and Katie

Ronni Gordon

Building a Strong Doctor-Patient Bond

Tuesday, 09 Jul 2013 11:01 AM

By Ronni Gordon

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Helping your doctor get to know you and getting to know your doctor are important components of a successful doctor-patient relationship.
 
I'm not talking about probing into your doctor’s life, which would be totally inappropriate. Rather I mean that during regular appointments when you're not in crisis mode, you can ask some simple questions that help take the edge off "white coat anxiety."
 
For example, when I first met the surgeon who is going to excise a lesion on my kidney later this month, he seemed so reserved that I assumed he was the all-business stereotypical surgeon type.
 
On our second meeting, when asking me about the conditions I would return to at home (who would be home, whether there are stairs, etc.), he asked me if I had a dog, to which I replied that I had a chocolate Labrador retriever.
 
Curious, I asked him if he had a dog. He rolled his chair over to the computer and pulled up photos of the Vizslas his wife breeds. (Vizslas are medium-sized Hungarian sporting dogs.) He pointed to one and said, "I ran 1500 miles with this one."
 
"Not all at once, I hope," I replied.
 
He said no, of course not, but he does run long distances as an ultra-marathoner. Well, I thought, anyone who loves dogs and running has got to do a good job on my surgery. In all seriousness, though, I feel more comfortable knowing we have a connection.
 
I had forgotten to ask how many days I would be in the hospital. When I wrote him about it, I included a photo of my dog, Maddie, "in action," lying on her bed with a stuffed bear. "Beautiful lab," he wrote. He said I will be hospitalized for five days, and then I will be done with the whole thing.
 
Conversely, it’s important for your doctor to learn about you as a person and not just as a patient so that you can work together in making decisions about your care.
 
First things first, though. The National Cancer Institute suggests asking the following questions when newly diagnosed. 
  • Can you explain my test results to me? Will I need more tests before treatment begins?
  • What is the stage of my cancer? Has my cancer spread to other areas of my body?
  • What is my chance of recovery?
  • How will cancer and treatment affect my body?
  • How do I decide where to go for treatment?
  • Will you help me find a doctor to give me a second opinion?
  • How will my daily activities, such as work or school, change?
  • How can I get help if I feel anxious or upset?
  • What costs will my insurance cover? Who can answer my questions about how to pay for treatment?
  • How can I get help with financial and legal issues (for example, getting financial assistance, preparing a will or an advance directive)?
  • How can I get help with my emotional and spiritual needs? 
Don’t be afraid to ask questions you may consider silly. The doctor is there to help you, not to judge you.
 
I asked, "Do you have Ativan?"
 
I had become acquainted with the anti-anxiety drug while waiting for the results of tests to determine if I had leukemia.
 
"Yes," my doctor said. "Big bottles of it."
 
I felt better already.
 
I brought a blue spiral notebook to each appointment, writing down the answers to some of my questions. I also wrote down dates of hospitalizations, notes about people I would need to meet, upcoming tests, types of chemotherapy and other drugs given, books that my social worker recommended, and more.
 
It helps to have a special book because you might not remember everything you hear.

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