Irish Medical Times article - Are you afraid of your doctor?


I am exaggerating, but swathes of the public do tend to attach a god-like quality to being a doctor. Having a date in your diary with a deity can rattle even the strongest of nerves. 

Nowadays, patients can be informed and empowered, looking for a partnership. In practice, doctors have the training, knowledge, experience and expertise that patients don’t. So when a physician starts a sentence “I have your results here…” even the atheists amongst us hold a vigil of silence to carefully hear the word of God. 


Thanks in part to Dr Google a patient with a little knowledge can find themselves casually catastrophizing; a ‘funny feeling' becomes a surefire terminal cancer diagnosis, or a definite symptom becomes definitely nothing because who could argue with the irrefutable conclusion of - "Sure, amn't I grand altogether?!" 

With only half the picture, it’s understandable there is an element of apprehension when crossing into a doctors office. There can also be a general feeling of intimidation due to an unequal footing; the smocked overseer on one hand, holding all the prescription cards, and the peasant on the other side, with the chicken under their arm, who has lost control of their body. I am a serial patient (and a part time chicken), I personally don’t want to be on an equal footing with the specialist - the clue is in their job title. 

Fear can manifest in different ways, when I feel nervous I ask a litany of questions. Perhaps on a subconscious level it’s my ‘power grab’, but not from the doctor, from the disease. 

High Falutin

Some patients feel they are bothersome to a busy doctor who has important work to do. Nobody wants to waste anyone else's time, especially when that time could be used to save a life, or lance a boil. Perhaps our health system, which runs in a constant deficit of beds and doctors, conditions us to think seeking treatment is a burden best avoided. 

It’s possible we are a nation of inferiority complexes who think our lives are worth less than a strangers (aka Mrs Doyle Syndrome - “Maybe I like the misery”). Or our society may place an importance on acting tough and only seeking medical attention when our entrails have become our outtrails. For a portion of people, precedents have been set, with stories of being dismissed or outright reprimanded by doctors (or their secretaries) for putting their hand up. 

We hold high our doctors opinion not just of our maladies but of ourselves. We can be embarrassed to create a fuss over nothing and suffer the ignominy (the Cersei Lannister walk-of-shame) if we are deemed as healthy as a muscular horse - an equine comparison we should celebrate, and not helter-skelter down it's shame spiral. 

I’ve talked about why people are possibly afraid of their doctors, but I wanted to find out what a figurehead of fear thought.

The Bogeyman’s locum

I couldn’t nail down the bogeyman, so I asked a dentist how many of her patients are nervous? “Maybe half of patients are a bit anxious coming in, and of these a smaller percentage are very nervous.”

Why the fear? “Some patients recall a dentist with ‘a knee on their chest’ trying to take a tooth out. I don't know of any dentist actually doing that but it is recounted often enough that it would seem to be the mind's way of exaggerating a stressful event in retrospect. For other patients there is no tangible reason for their fear.” She talked of built-up anxiety and possible contagious feelings of fear. 

Her tools to tackle the fear (when you are the source of it) include; eye contact, explanations, praising even small efforts from the patient, showing empathy, and a welcoming smile - which she admits is difficult to pull off in mask wearing times.

Let’s discuss how we can reframe and steer clear of fear.  

Human Too

To quote the rallying cry of late - we’re all in this together. This collective awakening has forced us to look at each other and realise, dodgy haircuts aside, we’re all basically the same. I thought I couldn’t intimidate a mouse, but for reasons unknown I have occasionally had junior doctors shake in my presence (given fear is contagious - can ‘the afraid’ become ‘the feared’? For example, anti vaxxers). 

Recently, I had a young gulping medical student ‘listen’ earnestly to my heart whilst keeping the trembling stethoscope a good inch or so from my chest (interestingly, he confirmed he heard a murmur - I think it was the woman in the bed next door saying the rosary!). 

Nowadays with people's privacy and consent high on the watchlist even a seasoned doctor can find themselves awkwardly asking permission for certain clothes to be removed. As a seasoned patient, I usually start disrobing before I'm asked and take a running jump at the examination table. 

We’re all made of the same stuff, we have access to the same database of emotions. If the patient is feeling vulnerable, the doctor probably is a tad uncomfortable too, they just have a lot of practice in perfecting their poker face. 

Here to Help

Is the real question - are doctors afraid of their patients? 

As psychologists have discovered, if you have a bad experience you tell approximately 11 people, if you have a good experience you tell an average of 5. With the advent of social media, cancel culture, and unregulated online rating websites, multiply that by 1,000. This can be a scary world for doctors who often have to relay bad news, provide inconclusive results, refer a patient on, or handle a frustrated person in pain, these are all spindles in the wheel of misfortune which can translate to a ‘bad experience’. 

Sometimes, doctors simply drop the ball with patients who deserve better. 

But as someone who is competing with a cat for near-death bragging rights, I am alive because of multiple medical interventions. Togas and palm wreaths aside, I know doctors are here to help, I have the scars to prove it. 

Given the current armageddon, patients and doctors have never needed each other more. Gods, chickens, high faluters, and humans - we are stronger together. 



My top 5 fears when seeing a doctor...

  1. Not knowing my name - I was once referred to as ‘the little lady’...I beg your pardon? <eyebrow raise>

  2. Not believing me - Just because I look ok, doesn't mean I am ok. Chemo, radiation, stem cell transplant, multiple operations, ICD, open heart surgery, and daily meds are not an elaborate April Fools “Pranked ya!” 

  3. Not listening - Doctors who actively listen elevate the experience, you don’t have to overcompensate and ‘full body listen’, I’m not sure what that is but I’m pretty sure it’s a step too far

  4. Waiting ages, then done in 10 minutes  - In fairness, I also have this issue with airports, coffee takeouts and my husband’s cooking

  5. Talking over me - I get it, you’re busy, I want to wrap this up too, ah, now you missed my punchline (and my crucial symptom) 

Original article found here - Are you afraid of your doctor?