Physicians and their patients often experience a lack of communication, but this is commonly heightened in the midst of crisis. Life and death issues are faced, and emotions increase. It is more difficult to think clearly, much less to ask appropriate questions and hear and understand the answers. There is a certain crisis mindset that takes over, which appears to allow only a small amount of new, frightening information in at a time. No matter how hard a patient tries to comprehend a doctor’s descriptions, she may not be able to retain more than a small bit at a time. This is a natural, healthy response. It helps a person to maintain some semblance of equilibrium, and gradually to develop coping mechanisms. But this “bit by bit” approach feeds into another common reason for lack of patient/professional communication: A patient’s fear of appearing unintelligent. It seems that if a patient asks the same questions over and over, she must be stupid. In reality, this proves that the patient really does want to be an active member of her healthcare team, and that she is smart enough to ask the right questions to get the answers she needs. One study was done in a pediatrician’s office, recording the number of calls made by mothers of babies up to six months old. It was found that the mothers who made frequent calls during the first few weeks were those who were the most intelligent, caring mothers –not the dumb, neurotic ones! These mothers also gained confidence during that time and made far fewer calls in subsequent months.
Many patients don’t ask questions because they are afraid of the answers. This is a realistic fear when faced with a complicated pregnancy. No one wants to have problems in pregnancy, or to think of the inherent risks. On the other hand, it is vital to understand as much as possible about what is happening in order to comply with whatever care is needed to treat the problems. A mother who is experiencing hypertension, for example, needs to know what symptoms to look for and how to care for her body in order to prevent the problem from accelerating.
One big complaint patients have about doctors, especially in big hospitals, is the lack of time doctors spend with each patient. Most doctors, if given their choice, would spend much more time with each patient. Some, especially medical students, seem to see patients as symptoms rather than people. Finding something personal to comment about –even something as small as the doctor’s tie or the weather- may break the ice a little, and allow the professional to see the person being treated rather than the problem. A patient should feel it her right, however, to request a reasonable amount of time to speak with her doctor. This won’t occur every day, but a planned appointment will provide for more time for needed explanations.
Many patients are afraid they appear stupid, but many doctors make the opposite assumption: they assume a patient is educated and aware of the problem, and doesn’t need to have the details explained. This especially occurs when the patient is a medical professional herself. In this situation, the physician may also use medical jargon, which has little meaning to the layperson. While it is important to understand the meaning of “hemorrhage”, “intraventricular”, or “abruptio placenta”, for most people plain language would be “bleeding”, “in the vein”, etc., will make a more lasting impression.
So how do you go about talking clearly with your health-care provider?
Assuming she meant that she was feeling overweight, her doctor assured her that that was normal in every pregnancy. Fortunately for her, she went in for an appointment and discovered that she had started to dilate, and was put on bed rest. Even if you don’t know the exact medical terms for your problems or parts of your body, describe exactly what you are experiencing and where, how often and at what time of day (or following what activity). Only you can offer this type of information.
When you and your healthcare providers understand each other and work together to treat the risk to your pregnancy, you will feel empowered. This in itself can help to alleviate some feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, incompetency, anger and fear. It can reduce your level of stress, and perhaps even lengthen your pregnancy.
Caring so much about what happens in the pregnancy will engender feelings of motherliness and the beginnings of attachment for your baby. What far-reaching effects such a seemingly minor experience can have!