Is it Time to Fire Your Oncologist?

How to Decide Whether to Find Another Doctor for Your Cancer Treatment

doctor consulting with patient
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As a nurse, I've frequently overheard people complaining that they do not like their oncologist. Unfortunately, when he or she is the one giving you a potentially life-limiting diagnosis such as colon cancer, the doctor will probably not be your favorite person in that moment. However, if you honestly believe you are not receiving the best possible care from him or her, you can fire your doctor and find another provider.

Your physician-patient relationship is just that: a relationship. Sometimes personalities clash for no apparent reason, but other times you may have a viable concern about the doctor's capabilities. If statements such as, "He's [the oncologist] making me go through another round of chemo," or "I think I'm paying off her new car with my radiation," are coming out of your mouth, then you are forgetting the golden rule of health care -- as the patient you are driving the bus. There is no healthcare team without you. If you don't agree with or like the decisions that are being made in directing your cancer treatment it's time to reclaim the driver's seat.

First, Get a Second Opinion

Misdiagnosis of cancer occurs at an estimated rate of between 15% and 28% of the time -- largely because your oncologist and the pathologist reviewing your case are only human. If you feel you have been wrongly diagnosed, it is time to get a second opinion.

Questions to Ask Yourself Before You Fire Your Oncologist

Before you give the oncologist the pink slip, be sure to consider:

  • Why don't I like my doctor? Is it bedside manner or something deeper such as a lack of trust in his or her capabilities as a physician?
  • Does my health insurance plan regulate who I can see? Do I have to choose another physician within his or her group?
  • Have I obtained a second opinion that backs up my oncologist's original recommendation?

Asking yourself these questions can help you find the root cause of your unhappiness with your physician. 

Problem with Oncologist: We Can't Communicate

If you sit in a crowded waiting room for 45 minutes, then sit in the exam room for an indeterminable amount of time waiting to see your doctor, it is reasonable to hope for a moment of his or her undivided attention when the doctor finally enters the room. If you agree with any of the following comments, there is a good chance you and your doctor are not communicating well:

  • He doesn't explain things in a way that I can understand.
  • She doesn't answer my questions.
  • He doesn't make eye contact and is usually scribbling notes or typing on the computer the whole time I am talking.

Sometimes a simple conversation can clear these communication blocks. Perhaps your oncologist doesn't realize that he or she is talking in terms that you are not familiar with or understand.

Statements such as, "You are not explaining this in a way that I can understand," or "It would make me feel important if you would please stop what you're doing and listen to me," can redirect your doctor's focus

Problem with Oncologist: Bad Bedside Manner

I once heard a horror story about how a patient and her husband left the oncologist's office in tears because the doctor kept throwing out words like "metastatic" and "end stage" and the woman wasn't even aware that she was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer.

Bad bedside manner is probably one of the top reasons people fire their doctor, however, there can be consequences. Perhaps you have the top oncologist in his or her field helping you cure your cancer -- are you willing to put up with a gruff personality in exchange for reaping the benefits of one of the top minds in this field? Would you prefer to have a less experienced physician prescribing your treatments because he or she is nice? It's a very personal decision and probably another scenario where a second opinion might benefit you.

Problem with Oncologist: Press 1 To Talk to Another Recorded Message

During, throughout, and following treatment, your oncologist (or at least their staff) should be available to you. If you are suffering side effects of chemotherapy, increasing pain, or have any type of concern you should be able to reach a human being to discuss it. Another popular cause of much doctor dissatisfaction is the inability to reach the doctor when needed.

If you are not getting return calls, cannot reach a human in the office, or feel unsupported, it might help to discuss these concerns with the oncologist. It's not likely that the doctor has ever tried to reach their own practice -- he or she may have no idea what you are going through. On the other hand, if your physician is aware and your concerns are ignored, it might be time to fire your oncologist.

Sources:

American Cancer Society. (n.d.). Choosing a Hospital and a Doctor. Accessed online November 11, 2013.

National Coalition on Health Care. (2013) Exploring Diagnostic Accuracy in Cancer: A Nationwide Survey of 400 Leading Cancer Specialists. Accessed online November 13, 2013.

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