Listen to Me



Jean Decety made a lot of sense when he alluded to the fact that if a parent realizes the doctor is not genuinely concerned for their child, then they will most likely not trust that doctor.

In a matter of two weeks, I have been inundated with stories from mothers who have not been heard when trying to advocate for their children’s medical care. All of them have the same theme and their complaint ends with a simple question, “Why won’t they listen to me?” Eventually these mothers were heard, sometimes even years later. A diagnosis was finally received, an allergy confirmed that deeply affected their child’s way of life, or a medication was eventually prescribed to combat severe anxiety that had plagued their son’s life for years. What saddened me was that a few mothers opened up after their story to divulge their level of guilt because they second guessed their ability to persuade their child’s medical provider to believe them. “Maybe I should have been more persistent in the appointment. I should have not left without a referral.”

I understand what these mothers are going through because I too have experienced this sense of disbelief when I would bring up concerns about my children’s health issues. I remember at Fort Leavenworth, years ago, when my son was first diagnosed, I had made an appointment with his doctor to sign paperwork so we could start a plan for his ABA therapy and other programs. Even though I handed him paperwork that stated our son had severe autism from a developmental pediatrician, he was still reluctant sign it. He asked why I was pursuing ABA, speech, and other therapies because he assured me our son would grow out of it. “I have five children and they are all healthy. What makes you think that your child is the one with a disability?” Thank goodness I didn’t believe him. I left his office with the signed paperwork and never saw him again. My fear was that there might have been one mother who actually believed him.

While remembering my past experiences and listening to numerous stories of medical professionals not listening to parents, I kept asking myself the question, “Why do so many doctors not believe parents when they bring up concerns about their children?” We know our kids better than anyone. After doing some research, I learned that the issue is definitely more common than I thought and the parents are not the only ones who may be frustrated.

One word can be used to name the culprit: time. According to the article, “Doctors Tell All – and It’s Bad,” by Meghan O’Rourke, patients are not the only ones that are feeling like doctors are failing them. There are many doctors that feel the same way we do as patients. The way our society has structured care with rising costs, it has inhibited the amount of time a medical professional can spend time with a patient. Not only do we feel like we are on an assembly line for care, the doctor has a tendency to feel that way too. “In 2008, only six percent of doctors described their morale as positive.”

Sandeep Jauhar, a cardiologist, wrote that, “stressed doctors take their frustrations out directly on patients.” If a medical professional is overworked and frustrated because they feel they cannot give appropriate care to a patient in the eight minutes allotted for the appointment, this can eventually drive them to disconnect. Their level of empathy will quickly erode to the point that they may not even take the time to listen.

What is even more alarming is that this sense of disconnect with the patient starts before the doctor is out of medical school. Studies show that a doctor’s level of empathy can start to deteriorate in the third year of medical school. This is the year that students start to make their rounds with patients. As these students start to experience significant stress due to the work load and lack of time available, their survival mechanism is to detach themselves.

In “Should We Train Doctors for Empathy,” Jill Suttie writes that one survey revealed doctors responded to patient’s empathetically only 22 percent of the time. This statistic is staggering in the fact that over 75 percent of the time, patients were not listened to in a medical appointment. Over three quarters of the time, referrals may not have been pushed through and patients were most likely ignored.

Recently, medical schools have been looking into the doctor/patient relationship more closely. There have been discussions about modifying the Medical College Admission Test and incorporating interviews to explore applicant’s interpersonal skills. Medical schools have also started to look at their curriculum and exploring options to incorporate courses that help doctors handle stress in order to help with bedside manner.

Jean Decety, a neuroscientist at the University of Chicago, made a lot of sense when he alluded to the fact that if a parent realizes the doctor is not genuinely concerned for their child, then they will most likely not trust that doctor. Doctors need to find a way to connect with their patients and listen. Patients also need to acknowledge that their doctors may be overworked and tired. Walking into the doctor’s office with a list of questions and being determined to meet certain goals could help. With some empathy and strong communication on both sides, a trip to the doctor could be a more positive experience. •

16Shelley Huhtanen is an Army wife with two children, one with autism, whose husband is currently stationed at Fort Benning, GA. She is an autism advocate and currently the parent liaison for the Academy for Exceptional Learners.