What to Do If Your Doctor or Other Provider Insults You

What to Do If Your Provider Insults You - Determine the Intent of the Insult

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If you feel as if your provider has insulted you, there may be some steps you need to take. Providers, like your doctor, nurse, nurse practitioner, physician's assistant, medical assistant, even the billing clerk or receptionist in your doctor's office or the hospital, are professionals, but they are people, too.

You may feel insulted by something they have said or done, feeling as if judgment has been passed on you that is unfair and should not have been passed.

Before you take steps to deal with insulting behavior from a medical provider, be sure you understand why a provider might insult you. It will help you decide whether you should do something about it.

Determine the Intent of the Insult

Insults have two sides to them:

  • The insultor is the person hurling an insult, either verbally, in writing or in deed.
  • The insulted party is the person who receives the insult, the person who hears, sees or experiences it, and takes offense. In this case, the insulted party is you, the patient.

It's important to understand that an insult is in the ears (or eyes) of the beholder. Just because you feel insulted doesn't mean the person who spoke or wrote the insult intentionally meant to say or do something to hurt or annoy you. We are all capable of saying or doing things that are rude or insulting without meaning to come across that way.

Understand that there are degrees of insults, too. At one end of the spectrum, an insult may only reflect someone's really lousy, exhausting day that caused them to say or do something insulting. At the other end of that spectrum is a bully who uses insults as intentional intimidation. Neither scenario is acceptable from a medical professional.

Therefore, if you or a loved one feels as if you have been insulted, you first need to assess whether that was the intent.

Your next steps will be based on whether or not there was intent.

To determine intent, ask yourself:

  • What part of what the provider said was insulting to you?
  • Would what was said be insulting to other people, too?
  • Was he just making an observation? ("You are overweight.") Or was it judgmental commentary? ("You are fat.")
  • Was he just trying to be instructive, not realizing you were smart enough to understand? (To you, the person with a masters degree, he suggests you not bother yourself by spending time on the Internet.)
  • Was she trying to be humorous, but failed?
  • Is it possible you opened the door to the insult without meaning to? ("Nurse Emily, have you ever seen so many zits on someone's back before?" invites what could be construed as an insulting response: "Good heavens, no, Frank. I've never seen anyone with so many zits on her back before.")

What to Do If Your Provider Insults You Unintentionally

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If you determine that the person who insulted you or a loved one probably did not intend to do so, you have a few choices.

  1. Say nothing - let it be. Calling someone on their insulting behavior, if you aren't sure it was intended, can create more problems later if you embarrass them or make them angry. Don't forget - sticks and stones, etc.
  2. Say something, but not in a confrontational manner. "Nurse Emily - when you comment about my bad breath, it comes across as insulting, and I don't think you mean for it to be an insult. I have not been able to afford good dental care. Wish I could." Be polite, and say it quietly enough so you won't be overheard by her colleagues. Your intent is not to embarrass her, just to make her aware of the effect her words have had on you.
  3. Decide whether you have felt insulted by this same person previously, or in a more general sense by others in the same practice, testing or care facility, whether or not they intended to be rude or insulting. If so, you may want to say something to the practice manager or the doctors who own the practice, following the instructions on the next page.

What to Do If Your Provider Insults You and You Believe It Was Intentional

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If you determine that the person who insulted you or your loved one intentionally, you have a few choices. The keys here are to get the behavior to stop, and to try to be sure it won't happen again to you, or to others.

  1. First, ask the person to repeat the insult to be sure you heard it clearly and it was clearly intended to be insulting. "Pardon me? Would you repeat what you just said to me please?"
  2. Ask for clarification. "Did you intend to insult me?" Sometimes that's all that is needed to stop it. Just calling someone on it might be enough of a reminder that their behavior is unacceptable.
  3. Say something about it, and be very firm. "I do not appreciate your making comments under your breath about my weight. That's very rude." If possible, say it within earshot of others so that the story won't be told later by the insultor, making you out to be the person who was out of line. If someone is prone to being insulting and rude, they may also be prone to making up stories and certainly trying to defend themselves.
  4. If the insult was truly egregious and clearly intended, make the practice manager or practice owner aware of the problem in writing.

    Here's how:

    • Write down the name and position of the insultor while you are still in the office. If you prefer not to ask the insultor for that information, ask one of her co-workers. Believe me, if you are being insulted, then others are, too. Co-workers will probably be happy to give you the information. In addition to the name of the perpetrator, you'll need the name and mailing address of the practice manager or the doctor who owns the practice, or if it's a hospital or testing center, you'll need the name and address of the CEO or chief administrator.
    • When you get home, write a letter to the practice manager or the doctor who owns the practice, describing the scenario under which you felt insulted, and repeating exactly what was said to you, or what action was taken that insulted you. Be sure to state clearly what you expect to happen once your letter has been received, such as, you'd like the person to take sensitivity training, or you'd like the person to apologize to you, or to resign (or be fired) - whatever you think is appropriate. And just as important, be sure to give a date when you expect those steps will have been taken. Be realistic - these things don't happen overnight. If you are asking for an apology, give them a week. If you are asking for training, you'll need four or five months.
    • Once you have written the letter, put it aside for a day or so. Reread it after a good night's sleep and some time has gone by to give you perspective. For one thing, you'll find yourself correcting the spelling! For another, you'll be more articulate and specific. The key is not to make it long, but to make it long enough.
    • Now decide whether you really want to mail it. After some time and some rethinking, you may have a change of heart. OR you may not!
    • If you mail it, wait to hear back until sometime after the deadline you provided in "2" above. If you don't hear anything, contact the practice, and ask for the person you mailed the letter to. Then follow through to be sure they have taken you seriously.

And if you complain, but no action is taken?

Change doctors, leave the practice, or choose a different hospital or testing center. Lack of respect or response to your complaint is further indication of how it was you could have been insulted and indicates that it could happen again.

If you feel your treatment, verbal or physical, was abusive, and it could have a negative effect on other patients, too, then you may want to file a more formal, written complaint to authorities who license or hire the doctor.

Respectful communication is required in all healthcare interactions. Don't settle for anything less.

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