If you’re a woman, you’re significantly more likely to be accused by doctors of malingering, hypochondria or making up your symptoms for attention. (If you doubt that, read THIS or THIS or any of the stories on this blog.) When you have extensive contact with the medical profession because of a chronic illness, this sort of treatment can eventually seem normal. Most chronic illness sufferers, male or female, are surprised and delighted when they finally find a doctor who (1) listens to their report of their symptoms, (2) takes them seriously, and (3) works with them to come up with a treatment strategy.
But that's the way going to the doctor should always work. Could you imagine any other professional succeeding if they treated their customers the way many doctors do?* Let's take a moment to imagine this. The following is a short play presenting what it would be like if a mechanic acted like many doctors.
A clean cut woman in her early 30s, KATIE, parks her Hyundai Accent in front of MECHANIC’s garage. KATIE hops out and enters through the large open doors. She spots MECHANIC and strides over to him. MECHANIC’s garage is empty except for his tools and various car parts.
MECHANIC: Why are you here?
KATIE: I have an appointment for nine this morning. [She looks at her watch to confirm that it is, indeed, nine.] My car is acting funny and making a weird noise. You had me fill out a twenty-page form outlining what the car is doing and its entire history. I sent it to you yesterday. Didn’t you receive it?
MECHANIC: I never read those things. I just have my assistant file them away. Could you just tell me what the car is doing exactly?
KATIE: Sure. When I get it over sixty miles per hour it starts rattling and making a weird pinging noise that sounds like something is loose. Also, a couple of times the cruise control wouldn’t turn on right when--
MECHANIC: Wait right there. One appointment, one issue.
KATIE: But I think they might be related because the cruise control only doesn’t work when--
MECHANIC: I only listen to one car complaint at a time. If you want to tell me about your cruise control issue, you’re going to have to make a second appointment.
KATIE: All right. [KATIE is clearly getting annoyed. She blinks her eyes a few times, but continues.] Well, could you look at the car and see what's causing the rattling and pinging noises?
MECHANIC: Sure. I’ll take it for a drive and then we’ll discuss what I find.
KATIE: Sounds good.
MECHANIC gets in the car and drives off. Three minutes later he returns.
MECHANIC: I know what’s wrong.
KATIE: [visibly relieved] Great. What is it?
MECHANIC: You’re depressed.
MECHANIC: I didn’t hear any pinging or rattling. You’re 31, right? And you don’t have any children? Maybe you’re trying to get attention from your husband by pretending your car has issues.
KATIE: [confused as to how to respond] Where did you take the car to test it?
MECHANIC: I took it for a drive around the block.
KATIE: But I told you that it only makes the pinging noise when I get it up to highway speeds. I looked it up on Google and I read that--
MECHANIC: Oh, you Googled it, huh? Do you really think your Google search is worth as much as my twenty years of mechanical training and experience? Clearly, you want something to be wrong with the car.
KATIE: No, I don’t want something to be wrong with the car! There just clearly is something wrong with the car and I want you to figure out what it is and fix it.
MECHANIC: If there were something truly wrong with the car, your husband would’ve come to the garage with you to support you. In my experience, when husbands don’t join their wives at the garage it’s because the husband thinks she’s making up her car complaints too. You bring your husband in with you, and then I’ll consider believing there’s something actually wrong with your car.
KATIE: [visibly shaking, she’s so upset] Are you kidding me? [She starts toward her car. The rest is delivered over her shoulder.] You will never see me or my husband in this shop ever again. And I will be telling all my friends and family, not to mention Yelp, what a terrible mechanic you are.
A few months later, KATIE drives by MECHANIC’s garage. She sees that it’s closed up and out of business. She’s not surprised. She’s heard other women’s complaints about his service. The free market prevails and the world is the way it should be.
If only it worked this way with doctors.
*Of course, as mentioned in the opening, not all doctors are awful. Some doctors really do listen to their patients and work hard to help them. Unfortunately, that sort of doctor often feels like the exception rather than the rule. For instance, 85% of POTS patients are told by a doctor at some point that their symptoms are all in their head. That's totally unacceptable.