Guest post by Hannah Hoskins, founder of Not Your Grandma’s mobility aids
If you are part of the chronic illness community you’ve probably come across the concept of hypochondria. Maybe your doctor has implied you are making your symptoms up, or even gone as far as to actually say that to you. But why are they so obsessed with this concept? And how on earth do we get them to actually just listen to us?
Let’s start first with what hypochondria actually is. The NHS defines it as: Health anxiety (sometimes called hypochondria), where you spend so much time worrying you’re ill, or about getting ill, that it starts to take over your life. As someone who is chronically ill, I find this incredibly difficult to read, not least because my illness HAS taken over my life and it’s not through my own choice. I am not obsessed with looking for answers, I just want to have a better quality of life and to get that I need more than a 5 minute appointment every couple of months. In fact, studies show that to receive adequate care for the top ten chronic diseases you would need to see a doctor for 3.5 hours daily!
If we already know this, why are we still labelling so many patients with health anxiety instead of looking at their real symptoms? Well, the answer is in the way in which we train our medical professionals. From the beginning of medical school, doctors are taught about how they themselves might fall foul of the hypochondria narrative – although they call it ‘medical student syndrome‘. It is believed that their newly gained medical knowledge, and the pressure to perform in a high stress environment, leads to the perfect storm, making them more aware of their bodily functions, and most notably any pain they experience. On top of this, it’s thought that because they don’t yet have all the required medical knowledge, they may accidentally diagnose themselves with conditions they don’t have.
Knowing this, you can understand that when a patient like us walks into a clinic, having spent time researching what could possibly be the cause of our symptoms, we accidentally set off the red flags. There is an art to getting your doctor to investigate what you think might be happening, and it’s one so many of us have to learn from scratch. It took me a year or so to work out that I wasn’t allowed to seem like I had looked into something, or researched treatment options or specialists. The more suggestions I gave, the more push back I had from my doctors.
So what are some of the ways that you can avoid being labelled as a hypochondriac?
- Choosing the right doctor. More than anything, you need to find someone you can work with. If they don’t seem like that person, it’s a ‘thank you, next.’
- Not coming in with research. It’s tempting when you’ve found something that might help to try and show them as quickly as possible. This, however, is a sure fire way to be labelled difficult. Instead, gently bring it up as an: ‘I don’t really know much, but was wondering about…’ It’s ridiculous, but often a gentler approach gets you heard.
- Choose to see the locum. As they move around, they often aren’t caught up in the practice politics quite as much – plus they are normally a wealth of knowledge because they see so many patients.
- Bring a bloke with you. They don’t have to say anything, but their mere presence can add weight to your argument. They can also act as a witness if your doctor does try to tell you it’s all in your head.
- If all else fails, and you feel comfortable doing so, make a complaint. You can do this easily through patient liaison services. Often you can just email them about your issue and they will help you to fight for the correct treatment (although I acknowledge that not everyone is able to do this).
I truly wish these tips weren’t something I’ve had to learn. It’s laughable that so many studies show it’s incredibly important to have a good relationship with your doctor, and yet we have to temper the way we approach them so as not to encounter medical bias.
It’s so much more disheartening when you look at the actual number of people who are affected by hypochondria. Although stats vary, it is thought that only between 5-9% of the population suffer from it. When you compare that to the fact that one in four of us suffer from a long-term chronic condition, you can see that this bias is getting in the way of so many more people’s treatment than it’s protecting the system from hypochondriacs. It often feels like society has become so obsessed with weeding out the ‘fakers’ that we punish those genuinely looking for help.
There is hope though. Medical bias is being spoken about more, and understanding of chronic illness and the time required to support those illnesses is starting to be understood. The way that we approach health is changing too. We are moving from a reactionary based model to a preventative one, which means it will become more common to seek medical advice much earlier rather than leaving things until the symptoms are dire. This will all affect the way doctors are trained and the way that they treat patients. As with most things medical, it will take some time for the changes to really take effect, but there is a definite shift in the way we are thinking about health.
Hannah Hoskins is a disabled entrepreneur whose no bull approach is transforming the way we look at disability. Hannah became fed up with the constant stares and comments she got while out in public using mobility aids. She took to the internet only to find that there was a whole community who faced the same issue. After making over her rollator into a pink dream machine, Hannah found that people treated her like everyone else because they were reminded that she was just a person behind the mobility aid. Determined to change the conversation around mobility aids, Hannah founded Not Your Grandma’s with the mission to enable all disabled people to have mobility aids that match their personality. You can find Not Your Grandma’s on Instagram