Sharing stories: Understanding our differences

Have you ever felt like there were invisible barriers between you and your health care provider?  Dealing with chronic pain is difficult enough, and it gets even harder when you feel like your provider doesn’t understand you.  In an ideal world, everyone understands each other and everyone gets equal treatment, but this is not always what happens in real life.  Misunderstandings and even inequality can happen anywhere, even in your healthcare provider’s office.  Chances are, your healthcare provider isn’t trying to be insensitive, but he or she may not understand certain things about you.  People tend to think about their own experiences, culture, and beliefs when they make decisions, which can lead to communication problems.  Without mutual understanding, it is hard for your provider to help you control your pain within the context of your life.

But don’t get discouraged!  You and your provider can work together to make sure that he or she understands your life and the things that are important to you.  This isn’t always easy, but it will help you get the quality treatment you deserve. It can be intimidating to try to explain your lifestyle, culture, or religion to your healthcare provider.  But think of this as an opportunity to break down barriers between you and build a better relationship.


As described elsewhere on this site, communication is key!  If you and your provider don’t speak the same language, it can become almost impossible to work together on your treatment plan.  Some patients bring friends or family to help translate during medical appointments.  This is not always the best thing to do, because your friends or relatives may not fully understand medical information.  Also, they probably will feel uncomfortable if they have to translate any bad news.  Sometimes your healthcare provider will simply ask other people in the building (staff or patients) if they can translate.  These people may have the same problems understanding medical information, and may not even have a legal right to know about your condition.


In a perfect situation, your provider will speak your language, but there are also other ways to break this barrier.  Think about calling (or asking a relative to call) your provider’s office in advance to ask for a qualified medical translator available when you come in.  You have the right to understand and to be understood. You also have the right to privacy.

Spiritual and Religious Beliefs

Language may not be the only barrier between you and your provider.  Your provider may not realize that certain things make you uncomfortable for spiritual, religious or cultural reasons, and may not understand the ways in which you think about your chronic pain.  It can be embarrassing or intimidating to try to explain this, but you have the right to feel comfortable with your treatment.  Don’t be shy about sharing your own beliefs and thoughts about your pain.

Different Roles for Men and Women

The roles of men and women are different in every culture.  Your provider is probably thinking in terms of his or her own culture, and may not realize that your views are different.  If your provider asks you to do something that makes you uncomfortable, don’t stay silent!  If you are worried about modesty during a medical exam, or only want to work with someone who shares your gender, speak up.  You have the right to be comfortable with your provider, but you need to talk openly about your needs.

Lifestyle Differences

Your provider might tell you to take three weeks off from work to treat your chronic pain.  But this might cause you to lose your job.  Many patients don’t feel comfortable saying this to their healthcare providers, and will just ignore the advice.  But if you want to get the best possible treatment, you need to make sure that your provider understands your life.  This is the only way to build an honest, successful relationship.

Speak Up!

In a perfect world, you have a long term relationship with your health care provider, and you understand each other.  But if you know there are extra barriers (like language challenges or other differences) although it can be more difficult, it is worth making the effort. We don’t live in a perfect world, so it is important to make sure that you and your provider understand each other.  This relationship is not just about medicine; your provider needs to understand your beliefs and your lifestyle.  Let your provider explain the science, and make sure that you have the opportunity to talk about the non-science side.  In the end, you and your provider can both learn something!  Give your health care provider a view into the life you lead.