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5 Signs You Need to Break Up With Your Doctor

It may be time to let some health care providers go.

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An image of a doctor with a red X drawn over him.
Dan Saelinger / Trunk Archive
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It took 17 years for Nika C. Beamon, a New York TV writer, to be diagnosed with an autoimmune disease. For years, doctors only tested her for diseases associated with people of color, like lupus and sickle cell anemia. Her symptoms worsened, but providers refused to dig deeper. “If I had not advocated for myself and kept seeking out doctors — 26 between ages 17 and 40 — I would be dead by now,” she explains today at age 47.

Like Beamon, some of us are in doctor-patient relationships that have reached their breaking points. When your provider isn’t a fit, it can affect your well-being — and your life.

The stakes can be particularly high for Black women: We disproportionately have higher rates of conditions like heart disease, stroke and diabetes, as well as cancer of the cervix. We can also face racism, sexism and “Superwoman syndrome” on the daily so, perhaps not surprisingly, we are also 20 percent more likely than white women to report serious psychological distress.

Plus, health care mistreatment can happen to any of us. Remember the story of tennis star Serena Williams? While recovering from a C-section she experienced complications and reportedly had to convince medical staff to conduct testing to treat an underlying clotting issue she had. As a result, she fell into a medical crisis.

So why do we stay too long? Sometimes it’s due to convenience or feelings of loyalty, explains Mitzi Joi Williams, a neurologist and assistant professor at Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta. Or because we don’t realize wecan switch providers.

In Beamon’s case, she got the correct diagnosis — a rare autoimmune condition called IgG4-related disease — when she sought out a top doc after being wrongly said to have possible lymphoma. A blood test and multiple biopsies confirmed the truth. And though she feels better now, and is grateful that she has gotten better and can share her story, she deals with lasting damage.

“I’m one of the lucky ones,” Beamon says. “Life could have been totally different if somebody had looked outside the box in the beginning and taken my symptoms more seriously. And I think part of the reason they didn’t is that I was young, I was black and I was a woman.”

So remember her story. And, if you see the following signs while visiting a health care provider, consider moving all the way on.

You can’t get timely appointments.
For life-threating issues, like a suspected heart attack or stroke, always seek emergency care. And if you can’t be seen for months for regular appointments, that’s not a great sign. If you’re consistently in the waiting room longer than it takes to streamScandal, that can be a problem, too. Just secure another provider before canceling an existing appointment, says Sarah Vinson, a psychiatrist in Atlanta.

You don’t trust your provider.
If you’re lying or withholding info because you fear being judged or lectured (and, in this, you’re not alone), you’re doing yourself a disservice. “The doctor is only as good as the information they have,” Vinson says. “So if you don’t feel comfortable being open and honest with that physician, for whatever reason that is, that’s not a good fit for you.” And, of course, if your doctor is rude, racist or sexist, that’s a definite no.

Your provider doesn’t listen.
Have you shared bothersome symptoms but your doc won’t investigate? If so, you may want to roll. For good. That said, don’t expect a doctor to do everything you ask. You may want antibiotics for a cold, but your doc says no because antibiotics aren’t indicated for a virus. “But you have to have somebody [who] listens,” Williams says. Since you know your body, the doctor-patient relationship “really has to be a partnership,” she adds.

Your doctor isn’t actually helping or lacks expertise.
“You don’t want people [who jump] to a conclusion just to give you an answer,” says Vinson. If a provider works to figure out an issue, that can be helpful. But a provider’s lack of expertise, or a lack of improvement in your health over time (like Beamon’s situation), is a reason to switch. At minimum, consider seeking a second opinion. If the doctor doesn’t know the answer to basic questions about your condition, “that’s not a good sign,” Williams says.

Your doctor doesn’t understand you.
Sometimes a provider may have clinical skills but lacks cultural understanding — and the willingness to learn. Herdyne Mercier, a clinical social worker in Plantation, Florida, once sought therapy to unpack everyday concerns. “It is very important that you make time for self-care,” she says. But her first choice wasn’t a fit. “I’m not just Black, I’m Haitian,” Mercier explains. “You always want to know: Does the provider understand you and your experiences?” A second therapist helped. Now Mercier works to help other wives and wives-to-be navigate their lives. So if your connection is really off, trust yourself. Don’t be afraid to move on. Many times, you are your best advocate.