When you fear being labelled a “difficult” patient

by Carolyn Thomas  ♥  @HeartSisters

We arrive early for our doctor’s appointment. We wait patiently. We sit across from the doctor, and we nod and smile politely during our visit. We pick up the prescription for our meds and then we walk out the door to make room for the next patient waiting.

And sometimes we do this even when the discussion about our health care leaves us with unspoken concerns or unanswered questions. Most patients know what this feels like, so it’s reassuring to learn that academics are actually studying it: our fear of being labelled a “difficult patient”

Research published in the journal Health Affairs earlier this year summed this up nicely:(1)

“Relatively little is known about why some patients are reluctant to engage in a collaborative discussion with physicians about their choices in health care.

“In a series of interviews in the San Francisco Bay Area, we found that participants voiced a strong desire to engage in shared decision-making about treatment options with their physicians.

However, several obstacles inhibit those discussions, including:

  • even relatively affluent and well-educated patients feel compelled to conform to socially sanctioned roles and defer to physicians during clinical consultations
  • physicians can be authoritarian
  • the fear of being categorized as “difficult” prevents patients from participating more fully in their own health care.

Keep in mind that the patients recruited for this study were from Palo Alto Medical Foundation physician practices, described by the researchers as “wealthy, highly educated people from a desirable suburb in California, generally thought to be in a position of considerable social privilege and therefore more likely than others to be able to assert themselves” – and as residents of Silicon Valley, they also represented one of the most wired health populations on the planet. 

Most participants in this study were over 50, lived in affluent areas, and well-educated (attended/completed graduate school).

Yet here’s how researchers described the realities of patients like this:

“Most participants in the study talked about how they actively tried to avoid challenging their physicians during office visits.   

“Deference to authority instead of genuine partnership appeared to be the participants’ mode of working.”

I’ve been to Palo Alto when I attended Stanford University’s Medicine X conference, my heart sisters, and I have to say that if these “wealthy, highly educated people” feel compelled to resort to “deference to authority”, do the rest of us dull-witted patients have a hope in hell of not doing so, too?

As Dr. Dominick Frosch, lead author of the Health Affairs report, told The New York Times:

“Many physicians say they are already doing shared decision-making, but patients still aren’t perceiving the relationship as a partnership. People experience a different sense of self in the doctor-patient interaction. The clinical context creates a reluctance to be more assertive.”

“And it’s hard to think that people from more disadvantaged backgrounds would find it any easier to question doctors.”

We are right to worry about appearing difficult to our doctors. 

A number of studies, including one by Dr. Perry An reported in the Archives of Internal Medicine, have revealed that one of every six outpatient visits is described as “difficult” by physicians.(2) 

Difficult encounters are more likely to occur with patients who:

  • have a mental disorder
  • present with more than five somatic symptoms
  • exhibit high use of health services
  • possess a list of complaints
  • have threatening and abrasive personalities

Some doctors studied reported, in fact, that they secretly hope that their challenging patients will not return, and considered these difficult encounters to be “time-consuming as well as both personally and professionally unsatisfying.’

Dr. J.E. Groves, in a telling study he called “Taking Care of the Hateful Patient” published in the New England Journal of Medicine back in 1978, described four basic types of difficult (er, “hateful“) patients:

  • 1.  the demander
  • 2.  the manipulator
  • 3.  the denier
  • 4.  the self-destroyer

One wonders how Groves et al would possibly tolerate the tech-savvy, medical-Googling empowered patient movement decades later?

Does it sound disrespectful (and perhaps naïve) for doctors to label a patient as “difficult”? Make no mistake – there are indeed those people for whom “difficult” would be a charitably descriptive statement of fact;  we’ve all met these types in our travels.

But my concern is for those of us who are generally reasonable and curious and not-difficult, the people who simply want to question our doctors (but may hesitate) or to request specific treatment options (but may hesitate) or to be taken seriously when we are feeling ill and desperate (but may lose hope of doing so) because of our own reluctance to be unfairly labelled.

According to Dr. Stephen Balt, Editor-In-Chief of The Carlat Psychiatry Report:

“Doctors are people too, and it would be even more naïve to think that doctors don’t have their own reactions to (and opinions of) the patients they treat. Let’s face it: doctors simply don’t like dealing with some patients.

“But I would posit that there’s no such thing as a difficult patient.  To be sure, some patients present with difficult problems, challenging histories, poor interpersonal skills, and needs that simply can’t be met with the interventions available to the physician. 

“But every patient suffers in his or her own way.  Doctors bring their own baggage to the interaction, too, in the form of strong opinions, personal biases, lack of knowledge, or – conversely – the perception that we know what’s going on, when in reality we do not.”

Over the past three years, I’ve heard from many heart attack survivors who have shared with me horror stories of being treated as “difficult” patients because they challenged a doctor’s dismissal of their cardiac symptoms – when they knew that something felt very, very wrong to them. 

I was one of them. Four years ago, I asked the E.R. doctor (who had just misdiagnosed my textbook heart attack symptoms of chest pain, nausea, sweating and pain down my left arm as acid reflux) about this alarming arm pain.

This is what I was later told by the E.R. nurse in no uncertain terms (and no, I am not making this up):

    “You’ll have to stop questioning the doctor. He’s a very good doctor, and he does not like to be questioned.”

Her stern warning immediately left no doubt whatsoever in my mind that I was, in fact, being perceived as a “difficult” patient because I had the temerity to ask questions – yes, even in mid-heart attack. By then, having been confidently misdiagnosed a few minutes earlier by a person with the letters M.D. after his name, I was already feeling embarrassed for having made such a fuss over nothing, and for wasting his very valuable time in Emerg while all those truly sick people were lined up in the waiting room.

Nobody had to tell me twice to shut up and go home.

Patients like me can be frustrating to physicians. Doctors may not be able to solve a diagnostic mystery or find a treatment option that works for this type of patient, and they may dread encountering these patients again due to that frustration.

Patients like me also walk a razor-sharp tightrope. We risk being labelled as “difficult” if we persist, yet we risk being dead if we don’t.  And we are justifiably afraid of being sent away in case something is actually very wrong.

Worse, doctors may even slap the term anxious female” on the patient’s chart, virtually guaranteeing subsequent misdiagnoses and dismissals during future visits.

As Dr. Caroline Forrest recently reported in the September 2012 issue of the journal, Primary Health Care:

“When patients are branded as difficult or demanding by health care professionals, it can in turn have a detrimental effect on the treatment a patient receives.”

No wonder many of us resort to “deference to authority” like those nice, well-behaved Palo Alto patients like to do.

And no wonder the Palo Alto study author Dr. Frosch made this demand in The New York Times:

“We urgently need support of shared decision-making that is more than just rhetoric. It may take a little longer to talk through decisions and disagreements, but if we empower patients to make informed choices, we will all do much better in the long run.”

NOTE FROM CAROLYN:  I wrote an entire chapter in my book A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease” about the challenges of being a ‘good’ patient. You can ask for this book at your local bookshop or public library, or order it online (paperback, hardcover or e-book) at Amazon –  or order it directly from my publisher, Johns Hopkins  University Press (use the code HTWN to save 30% off the list price).


Q:  Have you ever been labelled as a “difficult” patient?


See also:

Why Don’t Patients Take their Meds as Prescribed?

“How To Be A ‘Good’ Patient”

The Heart Patient’s Chronic Lament: “Excuse Me. I’m Sorry. I Don’t Mean to Be a Bother…”

What Doctors Really Think About Women Who Are ‘Medical Googlers’

Women’s Cardiac Care: is it Gender Difference – or Gender Bias?

Heart Attack Misdiagnosis in Women

When your doctor mislabels you as an “anxious female”

  This post was also published by Prepared Patient Forum


1. Authoritarian Physicians And Patients’ Fear Of Being Labeled ‘Difficult’ Among Key Obstacles To Shared Decision Making. Dominick L. Frosch et al. May 2012 vol. 31 no. 5 1030-1038

2. Burden of Difficult Encounters in Primary Care: Data From the Minimizing Error, Maximizing Outcomes Study. Perry G. An et al.  Arch Intern Med. February 2009; 169(4):410-414


29 thoughts on “When you fear being labelled a “difficult” patient

  1. OMG, I felt so alone before I read this. I was a member of Kaiser Permanente through work. Had a terrible time going to sleep and was prescribed Ambien. Would hear stories of me calling friends late at night with no recollection whatsoever. I began to have bouts of rage. Breaking my prized antiques.

    Then, over my husband cutting down a camelia bush, I drove my car to the top of the Coronado Bridge and almost jumped off. Never have I had any of this behavior before. After coming home from a mortifying mandatory 72 hr. lockdown at the HaHa Hotel, I read the warning side effects of Ambien. Do Not Take This Product more than ten days.

    That was three years after first prescribed. I couldn’t believe they gave me a drug that almost cost me to lose my life. From that point on, I was dubbed a “difficult patient” and treated absolutely awful by 90% of the doctors there.

    I haven’t had that insurance for three years, but my chart has followed me. I now am too scared to get medical attention. I’m 67 yrs old and need a GP doctor.

    Does anyone out there have a similar story? Please share.

    Doctor doubter in California

    Liked by 1 person

    1. What an appalling experience you have suffered… Several major warnings were added to Ambien’s product labeling in 2007, including these known side effects:

      “Abnormal thinking, behavioral changes and complex behaviors: May include ‘sleep-driving’ and hallucinations. Worsening of depression or suicidal thinking may occur. Immediately evaluate any new onset behavioral changes.”

      You were clearly not warned or followed up short-term at all by the physician who originally prescribed this to you, despite your growing list of side effects that you weren’t able to link to the drug you had been prescribed.

      Yours is a good example of how patients (and our family members) must be the ones who notice and REPORT unusual behaviours as soon as they start happening. Instead, those closest to us think we have suddenly developed mental health issues. These may indeed be linked to bad side effects of a new drug prescription.

      It’s also why physicians MUST tell patients in advance of prescribing what the known drug side effects are. When I mentioned this on social media once, a cardiologist responded dismissively, saying that if he talked about known side effects to his patients, they might become “paranoid” and start feeling them!

      There are a number of support groups online of people who have suffered bizarre Ambien side effects like yours – I found a few just by Googling. Here’s a Healthline article, too. https://www.healthline.com/health/side-effects-of-taking-ambien#1

      Meanwhile, you are correct: you do need a GP. Better to make an appointment and calmly explain your Ambien history up front rather than wait until you need Emergency care someday – and have your old charts do the talking for you. Make a concise one-page list of the worst of your side effects (including approximate dates) so your new GP can see this as what it is: severe side effects that were ignored for three years.

      Good luck to you…


  2. Yes I have been labelled as difficult patient recently and am not happy about it. i know personally I have been treated wrongly by go and I was prescribed wrong medications for my treatment and I declined those treatments. read on internet about side effects and the contents of the medications. my body rejects medications as far as I know that has been my observation and i have raised my concerns to the gp with evidence


  3. I realize this is an old post, but I thought I’d add my thoughts: I believe I too have been labeled a difficult patient by the doctors at my HMO.

    I’ve had an undiagnosed neurological disorder (primarily movement symptoms) for 6 years that left the doctors mystified. I took to doing my own research and since then have had great difficulty having doctors take me seriously. In addition, I’ve correctly diagnosed myself for some minor disorders (I’m ABD in clinical psych, and diagnosis of mental disorders was a special talent of mine) after being misdiagnosed by doctors.

    In my most recent case, I’ve been misdiagnosed with allergies for something that truly looks like it is repetitive biofilm infections of the larynx (the pattern and symptoms are only vaguely congruent with allergies, while the same pattern and symptoms are exactly congruent with recent peer reviewed articles published concerning biofilm infections of the upper respiratory system).

    I now have a rare viral infection called Bornholm’s disease that was misdiagnosed in an emergency room as strained intercostal muscles (the self-diagnosis is certain; the symptoms and criteria exactly match Bornholm’s, including accompanying upper respiratory and gastrointestinal symptoms, and are not anything like strained muscles, except for severe intercostal muscle pain – which subsided without a trace in four days, an impossible feat for muscles strained so badly that I was screaming out in pain).

    Unfortunately for me, most physicians are taught that Coxsackievirus infections (the cause of Bornholm’s) are acute and not chronic, while recent research by virologists suggests the opposite – that in some patients, it can become chronic for unknown reasons. I am unfortunately one of those patients, and my primary care doctor is extremely unlikely to be up to date on the latest information about this relatively rare infection.

    Since there is no treatment for my infection, I’ve not even bothered to go to the doctor about it, as I will be subjected to a plethora of useless and expensive tests that I do not need and cannot pay for. However, since the infection can become latent for years in heart muscle and can cause congestive heart failure years down the road, I’d like to get the diagnosis on record–but I know that I won’t be taken seriously, as I’m “difficult.”

    So I just live with the symptoms, which are more annoying than anything else (the first Bornholm’s attack is usually the most painful, which is true in my case–subsequent attacks have been tolerable with painkillers).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So glad you weighed in here, Lisa (and there’s never an expiry date on responding to my blog articles!) I can tell just by reading your comprehensive comments that you have done your homework. Often it’s not WHAT we’re saying to our docs about what we’ve learned, but HOW. Print off those recent virology studies for your next trip to your physician – even docs who don’t respond well to “difficult” patients might be open to reading published science. Have you read my recent post called “When You Know More Than Your Doctors About Your Diagnosis“? It applies mostly to those who already have a confirmed diagnosis, but also covers the hierarchy of medicine that helps to explain the challenge of being a “difficult patient”.


  4. Well said, and interesting blog, as a feminist 🙂
    This: ‘Note that I’m not talking about the patients with mental health issues who may be emotionally or physically abusive towards their physicians.’ stood out to me – I have physical and mental health issues. Mental health problems and being abusive aren’t linked. It’s a damaging stereotype, and actually allows people to get away with bad behaviour by excusing themselves for it on the grounds of ‘I’m mentally ill’ – whereas many of us with mental health problems, like myself, are harder on ourselves and more likely to beat ourselves up for minor or imagined ‘offences’ than those without.

    I think there are just people who are abusive arseholes, mental health problem or not.

    Yes those of us with mental health problems are sometimes challenging; mental health staff are trained to deal with that. All the crap women get, as you rightly describe, not being taken seriously and being expected to be ‘nice’ when very ill and desperate… imagine being in a mental health crisis and being treated this way. It is even harder to come across as what the doc deems to be acceptably nice, reasonable, ‘compliant’ etc when you are in mental distress. And it’s almost impossible to have a physical health complaint taken seriously if you have a mental health diagnosis/es.

    I had a GP who put everything down to anxiety, as you rightly address in the post on that subject, the difference being that I *do* have anxiety…I also know what the symptoms of that are (despite being a mere ‘anxious female’!)

    The underlying sexism biasing the way women are perceived as patients is the same in mental health and the need to address the power imbalance in the doctor/patient interaction if anything, even more so. I agree that people shouldn’t be diagnosed as having a mental health issue if they don’t have one, but instead have a physical issue – but please don’t sound as if you’re dismissing people with mental illnesses.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hello Butterflywings and thanks so much for your thoughtful response to this article. I’m afraid you are right – when I re-read this post, it does sound like I’m equating mental health issues with abusive/violent behaviour. Ooops. As a person who has suffered from severe depression following my heart attack, anything that reads like I’m “dismissing” people with mental illnesses would certainly never be my intention and I do apologize for that clear lapse in judgement! I wrote that line originally to differentiate between the type of “difficult” patient discussed in the medical literature (those with diagnosed personality disorders, “difficult” for health care providers to treat, particularly when they’re not trained mental health professionals) and the sick person who may be perceived as “difficult” but with no mental health diagnoses. I’ve edited my original to delete that “abusive/violent” reference, thanks to your feedback.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m definitely a difficult patient! But I have a difficult disease (Crohn’s) that requires not only a specialist (Gastroenterologist) but one of those doctors that actually has knowledge in treating a tough and incurable disease and not just how to perform colonoscopies.

    I’ve had ER doctors treat me terribly, and I’m not sure I’d want to see what they write in my file. My mom helps me keep my own medical records and includes notes like “ER doctor was an @**hole” in the notes, which can be awkward when I pass my notes on to a new physician! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Lovely to hear from you here, Carly. Perhaps you and your mom can develop a type of secret code ranking for your medical record-keeping? 😉 Or just specify in exact dispassionate word-for-word transcription what the ER doc said? ER doctors are the de facto gatekeepers to good care – it’s a tragedy to hear patients say they were treated “terribly” by our gatekeepers.


  6. Carolyn, I keep rereading your article.

    As a health care provider (psychotherapist) and a heart/pain patient, I keep flip flopping between the two stances. The FLOP side is that I am guilty of labeling clients as “difficult”. I find that after 26 years in practice, the older I get the less resilient I am and less energy I have. There are people who are very angry or demanding and they do take up energy. On the days I see them, I have to make sure I don’t see a lot of people, otherwise I am drained.

    I am blessed that I have my own practice and can control my schedule. And I am not dealing with physical life and death as I no longer see suicidal clients. So on the FLOP side I can only imagine what it would be like if I were a physician.

    My husband has been “FIRED” without explanation by 3 doctors. Admittedly, he’s a “difficult” patient and I suspect a few of those firings were initiated by the office staff who had been less than professional.

    I do think that patients as professors is a wonderful idea!

    Thank you for the thought provoking post. Excellent, as usual.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know! It’s a real dilemma. There are indeed extremely “difficult” patients out there, and my heart goes out to all health care professionals who keep trying to help them in spite of this “difficulty“.

      I recall a distressing conversation one day with one of our physicians when I worked in hospice palliative care. She was doing home visits to a newly-registered patient who had also been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. Each visit was an absolute nightmare for this doc, who told me she had to sit in her car before each home visit just trying to steel her nerves to get ready to go inside and face the patient’s outbursts. That’s Difficult with a capital D.

      But these are NOT the patients that this post or the Palo Alto study attempt to address, which are the regular run-of-the-mill patients who do not participate adequately in their own health care decision-making because they fear becoming labelled as difficult. Big difference.


  7. Wow! It was like reading my mind!

    I try to be the good patient while hoping that the Dr is a good Dr and is having a good day. I have been screwed over by several Dr’s and only by chance have I survived their indifference and incompetence or prejudice.

    I lucked out in finding a physician that caught my problem and wanted to fix it. But because I have an unusual history, I cannot reveal my full medical history or I will be discriminated against by most physicians and staff, even the office I deal with now I have issues with, but hold my tongue because I need competent medical care.

    Oh, how I wish I could tell them in plain English what a bunch of asses they are, but then our relationship would become adversarial and seeing as I need medical care to continue staying alive, I make like they didn’t say things that upset me and we move on. Inside I am boiling over with resentment mixed with fear that because I am a sexual minority, I am not getting nor will I get competent and timely care or be shuffled off into oblivion, I play the game. Just because someone went to med school or works in a Dr’s office doesn’t mean they checked their prejudices at the door when they came to work or that they are educated in your particular situation or give a damn. The patient is left to sort this out and make the choice as to what is best for them and hope to hell they are right in their choice.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good grief, Julia! So much of what you’re telling us is disturbing, but perhaps the most disturbing is the fact that you feel you cannot reveal your full medical history to your health care providers. That just cannot be good for your overall care.


  8. The beat goes on.

    The New England Journal of Medicine asked for a vote on the most important NEJM article for their 200th anniversary sorted into decades. A psychiatrist voted for the Groves article just 9 months ago. Fortunately his chosen article didn’t make the winners!

    He’s still practicing and I wonder what his patients would think if they read his comment. And of all the medical specialties, I’d think that a psychiatrist would have the most empathy for his patients.

    Walter Fitzhugh, MD MPH

    “Taking Care of the Hateful Patient”, (April 20,1978, Vol. 298, No.16 pp. 883-887) By James Groves, MD.

    “This article stands out as the most thoughtful, insightful and useful article EVER WRITTEN on a subject which every physician can identify with. Dr. Groves reviews the paucity of articles available at the time on hate in the medical literature. He then goes on to accurately describe four archetypal patients which can easily be described as hateful: Dependent Clingers, Entitled Demanders, Manipulative Help-Rejectors, and Self-Destructive Deniers.

    “We have all cared for (or attempted to care for) each one of these types of challenging patients. Following each vignette, Dr. Groves provides realistic and timeless recommendations for the management this particular type of case.

    “This is MUST READING for all doctors, and particularly for medical students (which was when I was exposed to the article). Twenty years after the first time I read it, I continue to reflect on Dr. Groves spot-on descriptions of difficult patients, and feel both validated in my frustration and empowered by his sound advice.

    “Despite all the wonderful articles that have made it to print in the NEJM, this one has continued to serve me every day of my professional life. Thank you, Dr. Groves!”

    (His comment is shown after ‘more comments’ are chosen.
    Yeah, I’m pretty much a bull-dog when it comes to hateful physicians!)


    1. Hello Cave,
      I think it’s that particular word “hateful” that seemed astonishing to me at first. Is it the patients who are hateful to their doctors, or is it that their doctors hate them?

      Groves’ original NEJM article defines his title as meaning patients who “are those whom most Physicians dread.” Most of the scenarios he cites refer to those patients with personality disorders or other mental health issues, but one wonders now how many were actually just like us: both desperate and desperately ill.

      One category in the Groves article (the Entitled Demanders) is described as demonstrating “a repulsive sense of innate deservedness.” Yikes! I personally know quite a few desperate heart attack survivors, initially misdiagnosed (anxiety, menopause, stress, GERD, the usual suspects) before finally being admitted for treatment, who likely exhibited that “hateful” characteristic of “innate deservedness”. How dare they believe that they deserved appropriate care and timely treatment? And did their doctors consider them “repulsive” for believing so?

      Empathy? Not much from Groves or his NEJM defender, Fitzhugh, it seems.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I am a chronically difficult patient.

    In the ER, I insisted my atrial fib was not a panic attack and I would not take Xanax to calm down. The ER doc patted me on the knee and said “You’re a therapist so you know all about these things. Here’s the Rx to fill.” I replied that I did not have an anxiety disorder, I had a depression disorder and I wouldn’t take the meds! He left with a smirk.

    While I waited for them to unhook me from the monitors, I had another huge attack, yelled for the nurse, she got the tape, showed it to the doctor. To his credit he apologized and slapped me into the hospital.

    HOWEVER, I’m sure that at the risk of being labeled even more difficult at best, and hysterical at worst, I would have gone home, but my heart said – Uh, uh, sit tight I’ll give them a “run” for their money. My heart is much smarter and braver than I.

    P.S. I have fibromyalgia and long ago lost track of all the doctors I’ve seen who couldn’t figure out what was happening and gave me referrals to see psychiatrists.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well, if there was ever a more perfect time to have that Afib incident, I can’t imagine when that might be. But again, it begs the question: what would have happened had you not had that cardiac event at that particular moment and thus been appropriately diagnosed? Very few doctors, unless they have personally experienced not being taken seriously by other doctors when they are ill, could even imagine what it’s like to have their serious symptoms repeatedly dismissed or misdiagnosed.


  10. I think the “Difficult Patient” issue arrives as part of a triad, or maybe more.

    1) Blame is cast on said “Difficult Patient”, and yes, I do understand there are plenty of them. Having worked with the public, I know that people come in all forms, including bat crazy and difficult. I also know that per the research above, it takes tremendous skill and luck to both “present well” as a patient (and hope that you can be lucid and likable while very ill), and to be able to hold up the patient end of the complex interaction.

    2) Another part of the triad to sort out is Knowledge Bias: that is because particularly with regard to female presentation and unique characteristics, medicine is up to several decades behind the curve, having done very little of the known research on women subjects. What comes out of that is we are not believed. Doctors, institutions and computer-based knowledge bases often function with a blind bias with this. A good neutral example is a new drug that may come out and the patient is at risk due to the lack of information. It tested safe but it turns out to have an unanticipated deadly side effect risk. Vioxx anyone?

    3) The third leg of this stool is Gender Bias: a usually blind problem where the particular doctor (or patient) operates with certain assumptions and attitudes that may have to do as much with one’s personal social development as their medical training (see #2). It also reflects an institutional gender bias, such as men going into the gun-slinger roles, etc.

    When the patient rightfully is suffering under the #2 and/or #3 problems, they are sometimes (and sometimes VERY frequently) cast into the #1 pot.

    In defense of physicians, they HAVE trained AND practiced for many years to acquire the background to be an expert. They do not have the time to communicate everything that goes into their formulated judgement to explain all risks, benefits, etc to the patient: that is, unless they see a VERY limited number of patients per day, say, one to three?

    As an analogy, we all know how it is when we have a teenager and we try to distill down our education, lifespan of experience, what we have witnessed, what we know about the law, worst case scenarios, in order to give that teen a thorough grounding in a particular issue. They question and question, and then we finally resort to: because I said so.

    This is why the problem is so bedeviling ~ because any one of these issues is serious and stands in the way of patient getting help. Bottom line: as in any bias that we have tackled in a society, such as race, creed, religion, etc – it requires that everyone get off their high horse and think carefully about their own part in this tragi-comedic drama.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much, Mary, for such a comprehensive overview. This could be a whole other blog post! And how to be “lucid and likable while very ill” as you say, is a big issue, isn’t it?


  11. One week after returning home from my first MI in 2003, I had a bout of sudden high blood pressure during a stressful meeting. I went home and my blood pressure was still high. I was without a cardiologist as my insurance wouldn’t cover the one who did my emergency surgery and we were transferring. Therefore my husband called our PCP and the office put him on hold three times and disconnected him twice. When he finally got hold of someone long enough to ask a question, he opened with “Don’t you “F*&$ing” dare put me on hold.”

    They hung up and when I tried calling back, we were told we were no longer patients there and we needed to find another doctor.


    1. Hooo boy, what a scenario, Annie! You could see this from both sides: your husband was feeling very worried about you and increasingly desperate as time went on being disconnected twice and put on hold three times, yet most medical practices understandably have some basic policy on firing patients who say things to the staff like: “Don’t you “F*&$ing” dare put me on hold!”


  12. Thank you, Carolyn for a terrific article! I will give you my gut reaction:

    1. Yes I have been labeled difficult by MDs but I have been in the lucky position to be able to fire most of them.
    2. Sometimes we can’t fire them because they are the only ones around with their expertise. In that case I put up with them and tell myself my questions answered is more important than being perceived as “nice”
    3. Some MDs, I would even say many, really would like to spend more time answering questions but much of the insurance billing system is based on time spent and that hurries them to everyone’s frustration.

    Having said all that I, too, am happy that good research is actually being done in this area. Being assertive is so hard when we are feeling at our most vulnerable. The burden of responsibility should justly rest on the medical professional.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Dr. A for your thoughtful response. I’d add a #4 to your list: what about when patients are not so much concerned about firing a doctor who may label us as difficult, but when the real worry lies in the possibility of being fired ourselves if we speak up? That’s a far more vulnerable state of being!


      1. Yes, Carolyn, that’s exactly why I say it is on the physician to look at their responsibility in this. I hope the medical schools are paying attention.


        1. I think you’ve hit the nail right on the head. As I read recently about the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and their Patient & Community Voices teaching initiative in which “patients become professors” in their health care education programs: “Learning doesn’t really start until we involve patients not just as partners in care, but as partners in education.”

          And just imagine if students in med/nursing school were reading the comments here to learn about how patients feel about being labelled “difficult”.


  13. This is a difficult topic – we have to advocate for ourselves, we have to consider our physicians’ reactions, we have to REWRITE the social contract between patients and physicians!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Dr. Anne – as both a patient and a physician, your two cents worth here is appreciated. Those are three tough requirements you list, especially the rewriting the social contract part. Where to even start? I felt so much dismay at the Palo Alto study knowing how privileged those study subjects were compared to the rest of us poor schmucks – if they cannot bring themselves to somehow figure out how to rewrite the social contract, what can the rest of us do?


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