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Embarrassed to Talk to Your Doctor? 5 Tips For Addressing Awkward Topics

May 27, 2022 By Ashley Abramson

Honesty and transparency are two of the important parts of a patient-provider relationship. After all, if you don’t speak up and share the truth with your provider, how can they properly help you get the care you need? But while you may have no problem opening up about a headache or cold, some conversations may not feel quite as comfortable.

Whether you’re seeing a new provider or the same one you’ve been going to since elementary school, it’s not always easy to be upfront about things like your bowel movements, alcohol or drug use, or your sex life. To avoid having an embarrassing or awkward conversation, you might even find yourself withholding details or keeping quiet about concerning signs or symptoms, even when they’re really bothering you.

If this sounds like you, you’re not alone. Some research suggests that up to 81% of patients withhold details about their health habits from their provider to avoid being judged or lectured. It’s important to remember, however, that it’s your provider’s job to help you stay healthy, and that includes all of your body parts — and the bodily functions that come with them.

Have an appointment coming up, but not quite sure how to be real with your provider without making things awkward? With a few simple tips and tricks, these uncomfortable conversations can be a whole lot easier. Here are a few places to start:

1. Understand the stakes

While you might be tempted to skip a potentially cringey conversation to save yourself some embarrassment, doing so could come at the cost of your health. Before your appointment, take some time to think through the big picture. “If something feels wrong or amiss with your body, it’s important to bring it up with your provider so they can help you assess if it’s something that warrants further workup,” says One Medical’s, Alka Kumar, PA-C. “I think it’s important to try to use your healthcare provider as that sounding board. We do our best to approach all situations in an unbiased manner and to keep your health and safety as the top priority.”

Though it may be tough to open up and share intimate details about your body, doing so can help your provider treat health issues before they become more serious. It’s important to bring up any changes in your body, even if they may seem irrelevant or not worth discussing, as even seemingly minor issues such as an unusual body odor or a change in the color of your bowel movements, can indicate a larger health concern.

At the same time, Kumar says sharing worries with your provider can also help them reassure you when something’s not wrong, which may relieve your anxiety. “There’s so much information and misinformation out there, and we can help you navigate if what you’ve read is correct or not because we know how overwhelming that can be,” she says. Dealing with changes in your body can be nerve-wracking, so even though it might be difficult to have the conversation in the moment, doing so can help you feel more at ease in the long run.

2. Know your provider isn’t going to judge you

From med school and residency to their daily clinical practice, your healthcare provider has learned about and seen all the awkward things — so, honestly, while airing your concern might be the worst part of your day, it’s just another part of their job. It’s your provider’s duty to be unbiased and nonjudgmental, no matter what you share or show them. “I can assure you that we hear awkward things on a daily, even hourly basis, and our job is to help navigate, treat, and counsel, not judge,” says Kumar.

When dealing with an unusual symptom or bodily change, it’s common to feel alone, or as if there is something wrong with you. Rest assured though, that you’re likely not the only one to have experienced these issues. And more likely than not, your provider has probably encountered whatever it is you’re dealing with or knows someone else who has. “If it helps, no matter how awkward or embarrassing your situation might be, I promise the provider has probably already been asked before,” says Kumar.

Keep in mind, too, that your healthcare provider is bound to confidentiality laws, so you don’t have to worry about them spilling the tea of your last appointment with anyone.

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3. Prepare ahead of time

Taking some extra time to be as prepared as possible can help you initiate conversations that feel difficult or weird. For example: If you’re embarrassed to talk face to face, Kumar suggests contacting your provider via messaging first. “We might, of course, need to bring you in for further assessment, but it’s a great starting place,” she says.

Before you go to an appointment, write down your concerns as bullet points on a piece of paper or in the notes app on your phone so you don’t get flustered in the conversation. Having your thoughts organized in advance can help you remember important details during your actual appointment, as well as reduce your anxiety. If you’re still nervous, you can even hand over your notes to your provider so they can work through your concerns throughout your appointment.

You might even consider rehearsing what you’re going to say ahead of time, either by yourself or with someone else. It can be less intimidating to address an uncomfortable issue, if you’ve already heard yourself say the exact words aloud.

4. Be direct

One of the ways you can approach an awkward, embarrassing, or difficult conversation is to acknowledge how you’re feeling right off the bat. Simply letting your provider know that this is tough or uncomfortable for you, can help alleviate some of your anxiety and take some weight off your shoulders. Try prefacing your conversation with phrases like “I feel nervous to tell you this”, “I’ve never shown anyone this before”, or “I feel embarrassed or nervous to talk about this”. These phrases will let your provider know that you’re approaching a sensitive topic and that you might need some extra time or reassurance.

Along with addressing your feelings upfront, try to express what’s going on in your body as you experience it. Don’t worry or get too caught up in trying to use medically accurate language or knowing exactly what’s causing your issue. Only you know how you’re feeling, so use the language you know to describe what’s going on, in the way you would normally explain it. Being specific about your symptoms as you experience them can help your provider better identify the issue. No matter what you’re struggling with, try to remember that your provider has heard much “worse” or more “embarrassing and they’re your biggest advocate — second only to yourself.

5. Try a virtual appointment

Sometimes it’s easier to have a tough conversation in an environment you’re already familiar with. If you’d feel more at ease discussing this topic from the comfort of your own home, try messaging your provider or scheduling a virtual appointment.

At One Medical, we offer 24/7 Video Chat so that you can connect with a provider on demand, any time of day, outside of traditional office hours. You can also schedule a video appointment with a provider you already have a relationship with through our Remote Visit feature. Learn more here.

Looking to connect with a primary care provider? We’re here to help. At One Medical, our providers understand the importance of strong patient-provider relationships and will take the time to get to know you and your unique needs. Learn more about One Medical and how we can support you in your long-term health.

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Ashley Abramson

The One Medical blog is published by One Medical, a national, modern primary care practice pairing 24/7 virtual care services with inviting and convenient in-person care at over 100 locations across the U.S. One Medical is on a mission to transform health care for all through a human-centered, technology-powered approach to caring for people at every stage of life.

Any general advice posted on our blog, website, or app is for informational purposes only and is not intended to replace or substitute for any medical or other advice. 1Life Healthcare, Inc. and the One Medical entities make no representations or warranties and expressly disclaim any and all liability concerning any treatment, action by, or effect on any person following the general information offered or provided within or through the blog, website, or app. If you have specific concerns or a situation arises in which you require medical advice, you should consult with an appropriately trained and qualified medical services provider.