Are You in a Patient Style Rut?

How to TalK so Your Doctor Listens

Credit: Darryl Leja, National Human Genome Research Institute, National Institutes of Health

Last week, a woman stopped by my home to share that she’d been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease (PD). She’d been given my name because I not only have PD, but have spent part of my career studying preventive medicine. She told me of her shock at hearing the diagnosis. For over a month, she’d remained at home dealing alone with her fear. She had questions and concerns about the medication she’d been prescribed. I asked if she’d contacted the doctor to ask about these. She hadn’t and was about to wait a few months to do so. The initial shock and her lack of knowledge about impressive progress on the PD research and treatment fronts had shaken her foundation. After we talked, she decided that she would call the doctor. She left feeling greater control over her health.

Most of us can recall a time when we didn’t ask a doctor an important question or when we rambled during an appointment instead of focusing on what mattered most to us. Instead, we may have been insistent or closed-minded. We may have failed to listen to a medical professional or acted anxious to get out of the office and put the whole thing behind us.

We’re all creatures of habit. And that’s no less the case when we’re communicating as patients. Our styles or routines can hinder or help us get the medical care needed for ourselves or someone else, especially if doctors are feeling pressured about time spent with each patient.

As a researcher of doctor-patient communication, I’ve observed multiple patient styles over the years. A list of common ones is below. Most of us employ a combination of these styles.

See if any of the patient style types listed describe you. Then consider recent doctor or medical procedure appointments. Use your recollections to assess if your style inclinations are helping or hindering positive outcomes? If not, you may need to stretch your style – to experiment.


Doers act quickly. They’re results oriented. They detest what they perceive as wasting time with indecision. As with all patient styles, there are pros and cons to a tendency toward quick action. A lot of important information can be missed.  On the pro side, this kind of patient is unlikely to let a warning sign go unexamined.

Detectives, by contrast, are data collectors. They use the Internet to learn, talk with other patients who’ve been through the same illness, visit more than one doctor, and often decide upon a course of action only after their research is complete. They may come to an appointment with a list of questions. If sensitive to physician time constraints, being a bit of a detective is useful for all patients.

Consenters place their health totally in the hands of doctors. They do what they’re told. They’re “good patients.” They make overworked doctors smile. But they often suffer for it.  Doctor-patient relationships are just that — relationships.  They require the input of two people.  

Loyal patients stay with doctors not right for them or their illness because they don’t want to cause offense. I recently had a conversation with this type of patient. He told me his doctor doesn’t listen, seems not to know what medications he’s taking, doesn’t like questions, and has little time to make anything clear. “So why do you stick with him?” I asked. “That’s what I’m wondering,” he replied. “But I keep doing it.”

Deniers prefer to function as if the diagnosis never happened. Denial can be functional to a certain degree and at certain times. The PD patient who visited me derived some benefit from early denial. She explained that right after diagnosis believing she’d been misdiagnosed helped her sleep better. In time, however, she sought help and support.

Resistors fight their doctors about nearly everything or simply don’t follow their instructions. One of my doctors recently told me, “You’re the worst patient ever!” Then he smiled and added, “But I’d be just like you.” There are, however, degrees of resistance. Some are healthy. If you have questions before beginning a medication or have a history that might shed light on why you hesitate to take it, resistance can be productive until you get the answers needed.

Alarmists think every symptom means a fatal brain tumor or something equally horrific. They overreact and panic easily. They cry “wolf” so often even doctors tune them out. If you’ve been like this on occasion, don’t feel badly about it. Especially after having a serious illness, it’s not unusual to think a symptom might be a recurrence or sign of progression. A little alarm can get a denier to the doctor.

Troopers want to fight the good fight. They’re more inclined to underestimate their medical needs – to be strong in the face of adversity. This is admirable. When taken too far, though, these people don’t get good care. It’s great to be tough, just be sure you’re informed.

Thespians handle their illness as if living on stage. To them it is an unfolding drama in which they play the lead role. Everyone is part of the audience. Here again, a little drama never hurt anyone. Just don’t let illness define you, be the subject of too many conversations or the manner in which you describe symptoms to those who can help.

Procrastinators put off seeing doctors or having check-ups. It’s not that they’re being strong like troopers or engaged in denial, they just can’t seem to get around to taking care of their health. They think their lives are busier than those of other people or they can’t be bothered making mountains out of molehills when there are so many pressing issues in life.

Styles aren’t inherently good or bad. Stylistic ruts should be avoided. If you’re stuck in one, try wiggling out. And, one more observation: It can be useful to discuss your style with your doctor.  For example, “I tend to be alarmed easily. If you’d take a moment to explain why I shouldn’t be, that would help” or “I come from a long line of troopers. We underestimate medical issues. Am I doing that now?”

Styles are learned. That means they can be unlearned or at least managed. If one isn’t working for you, do some tweaking. It can make a world of difference to your health.

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