Doctor’s offices, clinics, and other medical spaces can cause anxiety, fear, and trauma for many of us. Medical trauma, a term that describes the negative mental and physical reactions that stem from one or more bad experiences with medical care, can show up in a variety of ways. For example, if we have medical trauma, we may not feel safe seeking out medical attention when we need it. We might also avoid getting care, believe that we can’t be completely honest with healthcare professionals, or feel extreme stress before, during, and after doctor’s appointments.
Unfortunately, many people experience harm in doctor’s offices. Health providers may refuse to take you seriously, speak over you, make racist assumptions, or minimize what you are feeling. This happens most often to people who face discrimination in other aspects of their lives, including Black people, Indigenous people, people of color, disabled people, 2SLGBTQ+ people, and women. For people who experience discrimination, medical trauma is often also intertwined with historical trauma – the emotional, physical, and spiritual harm that our ancestors and communities experienced that continue to impact us today.
Advocating for Yourself
When we have negative experiences in medical settings, it can become difficult to advocate for and receive the care we need and deserve. But, there are things that can help you stay safer and feel more comfortable when you go to the doctor.
Try incorporating some of these tips the next time you have a doctor’s appointment:
- Think about what you need from your appointment. Before you even go to your appointment, take some time to write down or record any symptoms you’ve been experiencing and when they started, the questions you want to ask your doctor, and any concerns you might have. Bring what you write or record with you, and let your doctor know that you’ll be using these notes during your appointment, so that you don’t leave anything important out. This can help you get the most out of your appointment by keeping you grounded and confident. When we are anxious and stressed out, it can be hard to remember things or to put what is in our head into words; having your thoughts on paper or in a recording can help.
- Bring along someone you trust. Having a person that you trust accompany you to a doctor’s appointment can make a big difference. This person can help advocate for you when you need it. Talk with them before you go to the doctor about what support you need from them. Some ways that they can advocate for and support you include taking notes during the appointment, reminding you of things that you wanted to discuss with the doctor, and asking the doctor for clarification on things that aren’t easily understood. They can also be there to comfort you. Having a loved one by your side can help you feel more confident, secure, and calm.
- Learn about your rights. Everyone has rights when receiving healthcare. Some important rights include: being entitled to a translator or interpreter, being able to ask questions about your health, treatment, and medications, having your privacy respected, receiving copies of your medical history, being able to refuse treatment, and being able to make decisions about your care and have those decisions respected. In many states, you are also able to audio record your doctor’s visit, which can be helpful for remembering important details about your appointment. Learning about the rights you have can help you advocate for yourself, protect yourself, and make informed decisions.
- Keep your medical history on hand. It’s not always easy to remember your medical history. Illnesses, medications, diagnoses, and allergies can be a lot to keep up with. Having a physical or digital copy of your medical history with you can help ensure that you aren’t leaving anything out. Healthcare providers are normally able to view your medical records, so having your own copy is mostly to help you understand and reference your health history. Remember that you have a right to ask for and receive copies of your medical history from your doctor!
- Know and honor your boundaries. Getting to know our boundaries is a lifelong learning process, and respecting our boundaries is important for our health and well-being. It’s okay to say no to an assessment or procedure, or ask that it be done in a different way. For example, if a doctor wants to check your breathing with a stethoscope, but you aren’t comfortable with them lifting your shirt up to do it, tell them. There are options, like using a stethoscope over a thin gown or garment, having another person in the room with you and the doctor, or having a different healthcare provider do the assessment. And, remember that standing up for your boundaries is hard work that doesn’t happen overnight. We need to be gentle with ourselves, and practice self-care.
To continue learning about your rights, options, and safety at the doctor’s office, you can check out these resources:
- Teen Self-Advocacy: How to be your own healthcare advocate (Michigan Medicine)
- How to Take Charge of Your Medical Care, a guide by Elizabeth Yuko
Author: Gillian Joseph (they/them) is a queer 2-Spirit Ihaŋktoŋwaŋ and Mdewakaŋtoŋ Dakota storyteller who grew up as a guest on Waxhaw and Catawba lands. Alongside writing, they work in the mental health field with a focus on Indigenous health sovereignty.
Published: Aug. 4th, 2023