It’s okay to disagree: When you and your doctor don’t see eye-to-eye

It’s not always easy to disagree with – or challenge – a person who’s in charge. In fact, some people are scared to stand up for themselves at all, even if it means that their own needs won’t be met.

When the person in charge is also a doctor or other health care professional, it may be harder still to get your point across: After all, your health is in that person’s hands. What if she “fires” you as a patient for being too pushy, and you have to find a new doctor? What if he gets angry and refuses to prescribe the medicine you need?

It all comes down to this basic question: If you don’t see eye-to-eye with your doctor, can you still get good care?

The answer is yes. We’ll show you how.

Night watch

Imagine that you’ve been hospitalized. Your night nurse comes in with two pills for you to take. You were told earlier in the day, though, to expect one pill at night. At this point, you:

  • Take both pills. After all, it’s late, and your nurse should know what’s right.
  • Don’t take either pill. Instead, ask why you’re being given two pills instead of one.

Even though it makes you nervous, you decide to speak up, and your nurse leaves the room to check the orders on your chart. When she comes back, she says that a mistake has been made after all: The second pill was prescribed by someone who’d missed a warning on your chart about taking this medicine. Using it could have led to some serious side effects. The nurse thanks you for paying such close attention. And you, understandably, feel grateful that you had the courage to speak up – before taking the pills.

While some people might feel that this situation will never happen to them because their health care providers don’t make mistakes, remember that doctors and other providers are only human. Mistakes may be rare, but they can still happen.

Look what I found

Next, let’s look at an issue that’s a little more common: bringing medical information that you’ve found on the Internet to your doctor.

Suppose that you’ve been very sick. Your doctor has figured out what’s wrong, and has suggested a change in your treatment plan. But you’re worried that it might make you feel even worse.

As a result, you go on the Internet and start searching for information. At the next appointment, you pull some papers out of your pocket or purse and say, I found this on the Internet…

If you’re lucky, the doctor accepts your offering and agrees to look at (or discuss) the information. But there’s a good chance, according to recent research, that your doctor may think of this informational “gift” as a time-waster instead. It might even be seen as a challenge to, or lack of trust in, the doctor’s abilities.

Now what?

Show a little tact

It’s good to speak up when you notice a problem or have a question; it might prevent complications, or even – in rare cases – save a life. But no matter what you need to say, or what information you want to share, there are always tactful ways to get your point across:

  • Make sure your provider knows that you appreciate working together to get the best possible care.
  • Always treat your health care provider the way you’d like to be treated: don’t yell, argue, or fly off the handle.
  • If you want your doctor to respect you, then show respect for your doctor. After all, he or she is a medical expert who spent years in training. Even if your particular medical problem is tough to treat, or you think that you’ve found “the answer” on the Internet, be mindful of your doctor’s education and experience. You’ve come to this person for a reason.
  • BEFORE handing Internet information to your provider, ask if you can take a minute to get his or her opinion about something that you’ve found online.
  • Stay open-minded when your provider talks, without acting defensive or judgmental. Once you’ve listened, you can always ask questions or disagree.
  • If you need to complain or give negative feedback, be honest, and try to include a positive statement, too. Here are some examples:
    • Thanks for listening. It’s important for me to feel comfortable about this decision.
    • I appreciate your help.
    • Do you have a suggestion how I can learn more about this treatment?

Whether you’re speaking with a health care provider or a member of your family, a little respect and courtesy can go a long way.


Every Patient’s Advocate: Helping patients help themselves

The Empowered Patient Coalition (Click on “Fact Sheets & Checklists”) Because health professionals can’t do it alone.

Society for Participatory Medicine


Patient-Doctor Talk