Health experts say Black men can better advocate for themselves in medical settings by making a list of questions before heading to the doctor’s office, having a friend or loved one attend the appointment and engaging second opinions if necessary. (Photo by Sayan Ghosh on Unsplash)

By Torrence Banks,
Special to the AFRO

Healthcare for Black men is suffering from a curious disconnect between doctor and patient, according to health care experts. 

African-American men today often wonder what they should do when they feel that their symptoms or pain are not being taken seriously by doctors.

A recent Cleveland Clinic study concluded that 60 percent of men do not regularly visit doctors, with many only making it to a physician’s office when they’re sick. When they arrive, they may be one in a bustling line of patients to be seen by an overworked doctor– and in some cases, their symptoms are dismissed and dismissed again– sometimes, with fatal results. 

Founder and Director of Georgetown University’s Center for Men’s Health Equity Derek Griffith has concluded that one reason Black men don’t frequently visit the doctor’s office is tied to them feeling like they aren’t getting needed information. Others leave the encounter feeling disregarded and discouraged from returning.

“We need to put more of the onus and responsibility on the healthcare system to do a better job of being proactive in making men feel comfortable–creating spaces where they feel comfortable, probing for questions that Black men may have as patients– not [putting] all the onus on the patient to be the doctor.”

Griffith said that men were more likely to listen to the opinions of those closest to them, and sometimes the doctor’s treatment suggestions do not match up with the opinions of family and loved ones. 

“Part of the task of the doctor is to make sure that they probe for those kinds of things,” Griffith said. “What have other people told you about what they think is going on? What have other people suggested is going on? How have others suggested treating it?”

Doctors should ask patients questions in order to reinforce or correct these notions. 

There are several things that Black men can do themselves when they do not feel like they’re being taken seriously by their doctors. Patients should create a list of questions for their doctor prior to the medical visit.

Georganne Vartorella, founder and president of Patient Advocacy MD and a Board of Regents member at Georgetown University’s School of Medicine, said men should not leave the office without getting and understanding the answers to those questions. She also suggested that men– especially those facing serious illnesses– bring extra support. 

“You’ve got to bring support, and I think women are more cultured to bring support,” Vartorella said. “Especially when a patient has a serious illness, they don’t often hear, digest or understand everything that’s said.”

Doctors are not always the best at communicating the rationale behind their treatments for patients’ symptoms. To better understand their reasoning, Griffith said that men must be more willing to ask probing questions.

Dr. Otis Brawley, an oncologist at Johns Hopkins University, worked in emergency rooms and urgent care clinics from 1985 to 1995. He said that due to an increasing shortage of doctors in primary care, the quality of care for all patients has gone down. 

“If you’re working at a family medicine or general internal medicine office, the expectation of the people who run that office and employ the doctor is that the doctor needs to see four patients an hour,” said Brawley. “If somebody needs more than 15 minutes, that includes talking to the patient, examining the patient and writing the note– you have to rob it from some of the other patients that you might be seeing that day.”

Health experts say there are tell-tale signs that your doctor might be overworked– like if their head is buried in paperwork or their computer during your appointment time. Vartorella says that it’s important to communicate positively with physicians and not get angry or upset if they are suspecting substandard care. The doctor is likely just as frustrated with the situation, she notes. 

“Proactively say, ‘I know you’ve got to do that,’” Vartorella said. “‘It must be so difficult to do all the paperwork, but I know when you’re done, you will listen to my concerns and give your attention to me.’”

Ultimately, if the patient still feels ignored after attempting to communicate, Brawley said that they should locate another medical provider or doctor on site and share their concerns. Patients can also see another physician at a different medical facility to have a second opinion on their diagnosis. 

Brawley believes that men should go to the doctor more regularly instead of when they’re only having serious problems. Doing this allows men to establish a relationship with their doctors and ease tension when a medical concern arrives. 

“You already know that the doctor knows you and understands a little bit about you,” said Brawley. “That can help to minimize those situations.”