Why getting to know your doctor is good for your health

Whether you need a referral or the answer to an embarrassing question, having a familiar face behind the stethoscope can make all the difference to your quality of care.

doctor family heart

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Long gone are the days when a doctor showed up on your doorstep, black bag in hand, and cared for several generations of your family at once. In a consumer age that values speed and convenience above all, one-on-one time with a primary care provider may no longer seem relevant, especially when there’s a walk-in clinic just around the corner.

But research shows that primary care (seeing a family physician, consulting a nurse, getting advice from a pharmacist) is still the strongest foundation of good health care — and your relationship with your family doctor is a crucial element of that foundation.

Building a solid rapport with your GP is important for many reasons. First of all, your family doctor needs to know what you’re like when you’re not sick in order to better observe any changes when you are. And if you do get seriously ill, a GP who knows you will be better able to provide the emotional and psychological support you need, as well as help you navigate the health care system. As gatekeepers to specialty care, family doctors need to understand  what your needs, preferences and values are in order to connect you with the people who can take your health care to the next level. In some cases, that could be an appropriate medical specialist; in other cases, it might mean a physiotherapist or a dietitian.

Four ways to build a better bond with your physician
1. Get care from the same person or team whenever possible. Avoid walk-in clinics unless you have no other option — and use the emergency department only for emergencies.
2. Don’t feel that you have to be ill to see your doctor. You can come in just to ask a question. Some doctors are increasingly using email and phone visits for quick check-ins.
3. As in any relationship, it’s important to ask for what you need. If you bring in a list of questions, let your doctor know which is most important to ensure it gets the majority of her attention.
4. Remember that every relationship has hiccups. But with mutual respect and trust, you can work through any missteps or bad days, instead of treating the relationship as easily replaceable.

If you know and trust your family doctor, it’s also much easier to address those more embarrassing medical questions that come up. Doctors understand that there are topics some patients find difficult to discuss, but rest assured that it’s virtually impossible to surprise a family doctor. If it’s in, on or coming out of your body, believe me, we’ve seen it before — and we can help. Having those potentially awkward conversations with your GP should feel like confiding in a best friend rather than exposing yourself to a stranger.

Family physicians are trained to view every interaction with their patients as an opportunity to build a connection — and trust. That approach can be useful for patients, too. Try to see tough conversations — about sexual or mental health issues, or difficult past experiences — as a chance to strengthen an important relationship in your life. And when you want to broach a topic you find difficult to talk about, it can help to let your doctor know that, because it gives him or her a cue to approach the matter with sensitivity.

In the end, the most important thing is just to ask. Ask the embarrassing question, instead of worrying about it on your own. Ask for an explanation about something you didn’t understand. Ask for the kind of support you need. For reliable answers, there is no substitute for a face-to-face conversation with a health care provider who knows you. Every time you ask, you’ll build up the kind of connection you need to improve your health in the future.

Doctor. Danielle Martin, Chatelaine columnist



Dr. Danielle Martin is a family physician and vice-president, medical affairs and health system solutions, at Women’s College Hospital in Toronto. 



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