5 Things You Can Do When Your Doctor Doesn’t Listen

One of my friends was worried about his health. He was getting sick all the time, and felt exhausted no matter how long he slept. His wife told him he was snoring and stopped breathing once in a while at night. He told his doctor that he suspected that he may have obstructive sleep apnea. His doctor told him that he’s too thin and doesn’t fit the typical profile.

This went on for many years. Finally, he came to see me, and sure enough, he had moderate to severe obstructive sleep apnea. He started using CPAP and felt like a new person. Needless to say, he went to a different doctor after this.

Patients will often tell me various symptoms that may initially seem unlikely, or even whacky. But one thing I learned over the last 15 years in practice is that usually, the patient is right. You as the patient will know your own body much better than your doctor.

What I found was that there was usually another more important issue that stood underneath the main symptom or complaint. If you feel like your doctor isn’t listening to you or understanding you, here are 5 thing you can do or say:    

   1. Try to rephrase your concern or symptom. Sometimes reframing your statement can not only get your doctor to listen, but it’s a gentle way of reminding him or her that you have something important to say.    

   2. Be direct and state that you feel like he is not listening. Different people will have different comfort levels with this, but in general, honesty is the best policy.    

   3. Explain in much more detail why this issue is so important to you. My friend’s father had similar health issues when younger and died early of a heart attack.    

   4. Be understanding and bring it up again the next time. Maybe she’s having a bad day, or he’s running late. Don’t take it personally.    

   5. Move on to another doctor. If this pattern continues despite multiple attempts to relay your concerns, then it’s time to find another doctor.

Have you ever been in this situation? If so, what did you do or say?

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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5 thoughts on “5 Things You Can Do When Your Doctor Doesn’t Listen

  1. it took 11 years to get diagnosed with OSA from when symptoms first became significant. it took 11 years to get diagnosed with intracranial hypertension from the first time I laid out all the symptoms for my doctor at the time. when I finally figured it out, I had multiple doctors tell me I was wrong. because of poor diagnostic methods, poor understanding of the problems themselves, and inadequate understanding of what normal really is in order to recognize abnormal. the only way I got any answers on the OSA was by being a doc myself and figuring it out myself, then getting on a plane and going to Stanford. prior to that I was able to write myself a prescription for a tongue retaining device to prove that I did get better with treatment of OSA, because I did not respond to CPAP. I did this in the face of my doctors telling me there was nothing wrong with me that the right antidepressant wouldn’t fix. with the IIH, what it took was just going back to the neurologist over and over until there were enough clues and he finally dropped a hint and I knew what it was and had to ask for my own spinal tap. in the first case I had to doctor shop and go to the world experts, because most of my docs dismissed me; if you get dismissing attitudes and disrespect then move on. in the second case I think it helped that the same doctor kept seeing me over and over until we had thought about it enough that the light bulb went on. this doc was thoughtful and respectful, it just took some time. sometimes docs will temporize and try something and need to see you back a few times before they see a pattern and figure it out. so there is no one answer for how to get to the bottom of your issues, except persistence. keep at it, and find docs that are respectful and listen to you. but honestly, if I wasn’t a doc and able to figure things out myself and have the courage to question the dismissing attitudes, I would probably still be sick. I might even be dead.

    this is a really huge issue, thank you for blogging about it. it is really important for patients to be persistent and try to become an expert yourself on anything that is going on with you, and trust your own intuition. yes, the patient is usually right.

  2. Thanks, Dr. Deb for your insightful comments. In general, I find that the patients that find answers are generally the ones that advocate for themselves, and are persistent.

  3. Thanks, Dr. Deb. I can appreciate your comments. My mother has high blood pressure and congestive heart failure. My sister who makes all of my mother’s medical decisions is a 2-year RN who doesn’t believe in OSA and doesn’t do anything to try to improve my mother’s breathing. It’s all about just taking meds. My mother’s primary care physician and her cardiologist dismissed OSA questions which I asked my sister to ask the doctors about. The cardilologist had my mother lie down and quickly looked inside her mouth for OSA clues and declared she was fine, which is the biggest misdiagnosis in the world.. My mom has many obvious anatomy correlations to OSA.

    My mom falls asleep constantly during the day. She would ace the Epworth sleepiness scale 100% and then some. But when my sister takes her to the doctor and the doctor asks how my mom sleeps at night my mom always says fine. But it’s never acknowledged she can’t stay awake for more than a few minutes during the day.

    My oldest sister has A-fib and high blood pressure and her daughter (my niece) is a 4-year RN at a heart clinic in their rural small town. My niece doesn’t believe her mother has OSA although my sister snores like a train. My two brothers and I have been diagnosed with OSA/UARS so it’s very disconcerting when the RNs dismiss any obvious correlation. However, the RNs have not been trained otherwise and believe it’s an overweight male issue and they believe OSA is far overrated and too hard to treat. I have given them books and articles but they are not interested in reading them.

    My oldest sister mentioned above had to have a radical hysterectomy because she had stage 1 uterine cancer and I told her to tell the dr and anesthesiologist she most likely has sleep apnea, which she didn’t do. She had serious complications right after surgery with a horrible time hallucinating and other problems and remained in the hospital five days longer than she was supposed to and I believe it was due to her OSA during surgery.

    My bottom line is that anyone in health care who doesn’t understand SBD can thwart another person’s diagnosis and treatment. I can’t get beyond the RN’s beliefs to help my mother or sister. I would gladly take my mother to any doctor who could help her with OSA or at least try elevating the bed or compression stockings or something, than keep ignoring it.

    Dr. Park, you are right, you have to advocate for yourself and you cannot advocate on someone else’s behalf unless they believe in it. I found this out the hard way but it’s hard to accept when I believe in what I have learned about OSA/UARS and I have no medical certificates.

  4. JP,

    It’s sad to say, but what you’ve described is not surprising. There are a number of health care professionals that absolutely refuse to believe that OSA is a real medical condition.

    I wonder if physicians or medical examiners ever list obstructive sleep apnea as the cause of death. I’m guessing it’s probably usually something like cardiopulmonary failure, or cerebrovascular accident (CVA), etc. What they don’t realize is that OSA can be a significant, if not the main cause of cardiopulmonary failure or cerebrovascular accident.

    Proper breathing is the most fundamental thing that you need to live. Simply put, not breathing will lead to sudden death, but having untreated obstructive sleep apnea will lead to a premature death.

  5. Thanks, Dr. Park. Your response is very much appreciated. Somewhere in all of my OSA articles I have an obituary someone gave to me about a woman in her 60s whose cause of death is noted as untreated sleep apnea. I don’t know if that was an official diagnosis or a passionate OSA advocate raising awareness. If I find it, I will forward it to you. Again, thanks,