How to help patients overcome fear of going to the doctor

October 31, 2019 - 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.

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.

“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.

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

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