How to be a good patient

July 5, 2017 § 3 Comments

I have dealt with a lot of doctors in my time. It’s not that I’ve been particularly ill, but I was married to a doctor for two decades, and I’ve been a health journalist for about the same length of time – although one had nothing to do with the other, coincidentally.

This has given me a unique vantage point, and when I interview doctors for the stories I write, the same things come up over and over again: a kind of wish list that doctors have when it comes to their patients. So here’s a handy how-to, in the interests of fostering good doctor-patient relationships.

First, resist the urge to google your symptoms. A few weeks ago I went to a braai [barbecue] and came home with a bunch of symptoms, feeling decidedly unwell. “I’m a health journalist,” I thought. “I can figure this out.” By the time 1am arrived, I had added anxiety and insomnia to my symptoms, as I’d convinced myself I was going to die from smoke inhalation with a side order of salmonella. It turned out I had a bad flu, twhich morphed into pneumonia. I’m pleased to report that I am still alive, several weeks later.

As the epithet on the mug on my doctor’s desk says: “Don’t confuse your Google search with my medical degree.” Your doctor has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the human body – trust me on this. I’ve seen the books; I know how much doctors need to know to get those two degrees. And then there’s a whole lot of experience on top of that, which adds to their already impressive knowledge. The good ones know what they know, and they also know when they don’t know and it’s time to send you to a specialist. Find yourself a good doctor – there are many out there.

Once your doctor has made a diagnosis, by all means go to a reputable site like or and read up some more on whatever you have. But don’t google symptoms and expect a sensible diagnosis to pop out. The diagnosis is everything – you can only treat an illness properly when you know what it is.

Second, accept that you may have to wait sometimes. Doctors don’t like running late any more than you do. Believe it or not, they have spouses and families and other commitments just like you do. (And please be considerate – they are also entitled to time off to rest and spend time with their loved ones. Don’t pester them after hours if they’re not on call.)

But they are also aware that they have a duty to be thorough in taking a history and examining you – both of those things are part of the diagnostic process, and help them to decide if further tests are necessary or if they can simply send you away with a prescription.

In fact, you should be wary of the doctor who doesn’t take the time to listen to you and examine you properly, but runs exactly on time. If your doctor runs late it’s probably because they examined the patients before you properly, and gave them the attention their malady deserves. When it’s your turn, you’ll get the same care and attention. If you don’t – find another doctor.

Then, go back to the doctor if you’re not improving. It’s a bit much to expect your doctor to be psychic too. They can’t tell that you aren’t getting better unless you tell them! There are very few conditions with only one option of treatment, and every body is different. Some people respond well to one method of treatment, and some don’t – so go back and say, “This isn’t working,” or “I’m not feeling any better,” or “I’ve noticed that I have this or that side-effect.” Work with your doctor and you’ll get better treatment.

Which brings me to my next point: take the treatment as prescribed. Too many people only take some of the treatment, or do some of what is suggested and then mutter about how useless the doctor is. You’ve asked for their expertise, so use it! Comply fully with the treatment and if it’s not working, then go back to them so they can try a different tack.

Finally, take responsibility for your own health. Partly that means living a healthy lifestyle – eating well, exercising, not smoking, drinking moderately and getting enough sleep. But it also means asking any questions you have – about what is wrong with you, about your treatment, about how you can support the prescribed treatment. Your doctor wants you to be well. You want to be well. If you work with your doctor instead of against them, you’ll have a much better experience overall.

  • A postscript: if you find yourself at a social occasion with a doctor, it is not okay to start asking them about your medical conditions. If you want their opinion, make an appointment during consulting hours.

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