A patient saying no to a doctor holding a syringe

Saying "No" To Your Doctors & The White Coat Effect

Last updated: January 2023

Pobody’s nerfect. You’ve all heard the saying before but just in case you haven’t, the point is that no one in this world is perfect. We all know it. There isn’t a human alive who hasn’t made a mistake, misspoken in frustration, or jumped to an incorrect conclusion. So why, for Pete’s sake, do we assume that our doctors are immune to this most basic of accepted facts?

The white coat effect

For some inexplicable reason, whenever a person puts on that white coat and stethoscope and speaks in a condescending manor we instantly assume they are a walking WikiPedia and have all the answers right at their fingertips. As soon as the words begin to come out of their mouths it’s like we turn into an obedient fourth-grade student hanging on their every word like it is the gospel truth. We darest not speak up while they are talking, for we are but a lowly patient who has no medical or even common knowledge at all.

It’s absurd how we can walk into the doctor’s office saying to ourselves, “That’s it, this medicine isn’t working and I know I’m right, I want to change and I’m not going to take no for an answer!!” and then leave saying, “Well, I guess I can suffer through a little longer, maybe I don’t know my body as well as I think.” Where?? How?? Why?? Did anyone see my spine?? What kind of magical mystery spell did the doctor just cast to turn me into a compliant baby?

Doctors can be wrong

We all know that doctors can be wrong. I mean, at least, you should know that by now! Anyone who has been dealing with doctors for an amount of time, or even a short time, or even knows other human beings on this Earth or has gone on the Internet ever must have at least heard of a time or two that a doctor has been wrong.

In reality, it happens more than you think – I experienced it just last week, which is why I am writing this up. In my most recent visit I showed my doctor how a particular symptom I had mentioned a year or two ago was getting worse. He originally had told me it was due to a side effect of one of my medications and I was worried it was acting up. The thing is, when I mentioned it this visit, he told me it was a completely different thing, unrelated to medication and was simply a by-product of my cancer and was harmless. Uhhhh, say what??

Are you kidding me? I have been using this particular symptom as a gauge for how much my medications have been affecting me for over a year on your say so and now you tell me it’s completely unrelated? Well, They can’t both be right. Which one is it?

Contradicting statements

This example just one of many, many, times that I’ve caught doctors in, well, let’s not call it a “lie,” but a “contradicting moment,” if you will. Besides the years of lymphoma, I have had rheumatoid arthritis for almost three decades, so I have been dealing with medical experts for what basically amounts to a lifetime and being wrong is nothing new. In fact, a hospital nurse once got things so wrong that I had to be rushed to the ICU to have life-saving treatment. I didn’t die, as you may have guessed, but it was a terrifying few hours.

Yet despite this mountain of evidence, I still have an overwhelming urge to simply agree with my doctors and say, “sure, whatever you want!” So, how we do stop doing this?

Practice speaking up

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice. An old riddle, but also the answer to our question. Unfortunately, there’s just no easy way to assert yourself in front of medical professionals, no magic wand I can wave to give you the willpower to come out and say “no” when you need to.

Sure, you can stand in the mirror and practice what you are going to say a million times, but when you are actually facing that headmaster-in-a-white-lab-coat, all your grit seems to drain into your pinky toe. The only way you are going to learn how to do it is to practice every time the doctor says something you don’t fully agree with. Even if you only half-disagree, say something like “doc, I’m not 100% on that, can you tell me why it’s necessary?” Replying like that will help you work your way into the Full “No doc, I don’t want to do that!” Monty.

You do know your body best

Just remember, you know your body best, and even the smartest, oldest, and most revered of doctors doesn’t know it better than you.

Before we end, though, there is a disclaimer that I need to put on this whole shebang. Some doctors don’t take kindly to patients challenging them. Or speaking up. Or having a will of their own at all. If this applies to your doctor one of two things will happen, they will outright drop you as a patient, or, more likely, you will get the dreaded “problem patient” label applied to your file.

Branded as the difficult patient

I have been branded with this particular Scarlet Letter many times, especially in the pain management department of hospitals. They really, REALLY, don’t like me. Now, if you live in a place lousy with doctors like I do then it’s not that big of a concern, you can always find another even though it’s a bit of a hassle. If you don’t have that privilege, though, well then you need to handle the situation more delicately until you can find an alternative.

As you can see, saying “no” to your doctors is an important skill to learn when you have cancer or any other chronic illness. It takes practice and it can be a little awkward, but you know your body best. Fight for it! Talk soon.

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