Help Patients Overcome Their Fear of Going to the Doctor

March 1, 2021 - by Pamela Ellgen

 

There’s a persistent feeling of numbness and tingling in your fingertips. You’ve started dropping things. If you imagine the worst, you’re not alone.

The fear of going to the doctor strikes as many as 20 percent of people, possibly even more.

“Though I’m a healthy 30-something (a nutritionist and competitive runner with no pre-existing conditions) my fear of the doctor’s office never fails,” said Sarah Garone in an article for Healthline. “Every time I go to the doctor, my vital signs make me look like a heart attack waiting to happen.”

She attributes the fear to trauma years earlier when she had a mysterious condition that no one could seem to diagnose.

But with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, patients’ fear to go to the hospital and seek their doctor’s expertise or even emergency care has intensified exponentially. According to the Society for Cardiovascular Angiography and Interventions (SCAI), an estimated 40% of Americans refuse to visit their doctors for fear of contracting COVID-19.

This finding coincides with the results of an SPH Analytics consumer telehealth survey, where an estimated 70% of patients opt for virtual visits to save time. Avoiding people exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms in the waiting room is the second most-cited factor why patients refrain from seeing their doctors and prefer virtual visits instead.

Still, there are situations where patients need to physically see their doctors. In such cases, healthcare providers have to create and implement processes that allow them to see their patients without compromising the health and safety of both parties.

According to research published in the journal Patient Education and Counseling in 2019, iatrophobia, the fear of physicians or medical care, is common among patients. Researchers identified three primary things patients fear:

  • Illness and the medical exam
  • Physician reaction
  • Barriers to care

Patients fear illness and the unknown

These fears could take many forms. For example, the fear of illness could start long before the actual appointment. Patients may put off preventive care or addressing nagging symptoms because they’re afraid that the doctor may deliver bad news. As a result, patients feel powerless.

Another grave consequence of delaying visits to the doctor is being diagnosed for a disease already in advanced stages. By the time they see their doctor, treatments aren’t as effective or successful as they are in earlier phases.

“Those in the white coats hold our medical fate in their hands while we, the non-professionals, await their expertise,” Garone said.

Patients fear the medical exam

Medical procedures can be uncomfortable, embarrassing, and even downright painful. Case in point: The high no-show rates for colon cancer screenings have more to do with the procedure itself than with a fear of colon cancer. Fear of discomfort, embarrassment, or pain discourage many patients from seeking care. Additionally, patients often walk into an appointment not knowing what tests or procedures they will undergo. This contributes to the sense of powerlessness.

Patients fear their physician’s reaction

Perhaps a patient’s weight or blood pressure has soared. Maybe they want to pursue a different course of treatment. Or, perhaps they have researched their symptoms online and have formed an opinion about their condition. Any of these scenarios could contribute to a fear of how their doctor will respond.

Patients have fears related to barriers to care

When you walk into a restaurant to order a meal, most of the time you know what you’re on the hook for. Not so in healthcare. Even when prices are published online or a patient receives an estimate, the final bill is often higher. What if a physician who is out of network provides care while you’re in surgery? What if another issue is discovered during treatment?

And that’s for patients who are proactive about determining the cost of care ahead of time. For others, even navigating the healthcare landscape produces anxiety.

How providers can help

Doctors, nurses, physicians assistants, and administrative staff all play a role in calming patients before and during their care. Here are five ways they can help patients cope with the fear of going to the doctor:

  • Explain the value of preventative care. A skin cancer screening can catch troublesome moles before they spread. A flu shot can prevent severe illness, hospitalization, or worse. When patients understand the value of treatment, it can allay their fears.
  • Before the appointment, communicate what tests and procedures will occur. Because this communication will contain sensitive PHI, send it through a secure message.
  • During the visit, explain what is occurring at each stage to alleviate surprises.
  • Invite patients to bring a friend or family member who can support them through the appointment, especially for appointments that may cause more fear than usual.
  • Ask patients how they feel about their appointment before they arrive. A figurative pulse check in advance of the visit lets patients vent their concerns and gives you a heads up about how they’re feeling.

Telehealth Technologies Can Help

The widespread adoption and subsequent ubiquity of telehealth solutions and other emerging healthcare innovations during the pandemic is one of the most definitive changes in the healthcare landscape in recent years. Also, this particular development is crucial to empowering patients to visit their doctors, even as the risk of COVID-19 still remains.

Through centralized modern communication hubs, patients can easily contact their doctors and receive timely responses through their preferred channels. Access to information and services is also simplified. Scheduling appointments, screening, and consultations can be done virtually, through text, email, chat, or video.

Doctors can go over their patients’ symptoms and determine whether to require a physical check-up or schedule a procedure. Such capability ensures the safety of both patient and provider while ensuring patients receive the quality healthcare they need.

Acknowledging patient fears and helping alleviate them can go a long way toward ensuring patients get the care they need. ♥

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