What Docs Can Learn From Hairstylists

You wouldn’t think about going to a hair stylist to have your hair cut or colored without giving them detailed instructions, would you? Yet so many of us visit medical professionals and question little or even less about their recommendations.

Today, I am grateful to be my own healthcare advocate, and although I have great faith in the medical team that has been with me for more than a decade, I am constantly being introduced to new specialists to discuss medications and additional procedures since my liver transplant years ago. The number of physicians is expanding and, I assume, will continue. I am fortunate to live in a medical mecca – Boston – best known for “meds and eds” with access to some of the best medical minds in the country. I always like to say that if you’re going to be sick, Boston is a great place to do it.

Since undergoing brain surgery during my coma, I was driven and determined to start anew with a new ‘do. So, rather than growing my hair out on the right side of my head--which was shaved prior to brain surgery--I asked my nurse to kindly cut it all off. Hesitant at first, she conceded to my wishes. “Bald is the new blonde,” I joked to friends and family.

From that moment on, I was determined to let my relentlessly curly hair grow out. I also decided to allow it to remain in its naturally curly state – something it hadn’t done since age 11! I gave it a good run, finally convinced that it wasn’t a good look for me this past summer after going to a 30th college reunion in Boston with three friends. MB suggested I see her hair stylist and get a manageable short haircut. She insisted I looked better with short hair; I more than half-agreed with her.

I sought out hair help from my stylist and, thank God, she had the time. I had combed the Internet to find styles that appealed to me, so I could ask her, “is this even a possibility?” In the end, together, we found the new look. Voila! I met with success and was pleased with the results as well as the fact that she took her time to make what became a drastic change in appearance for me. While I waited during each step of the process (color, cut, highlights, straightening – I know you’re probably exhausted just thinking about this!) I was offered water, coffee, ample reading materials – and even a glass of wine!

It got me thinking: as patients we’re incredibly vulnerable, putting our health and (sometimes) our lives in the hands of professionals who we might not know well – and who, more often than not, don’t know us that well either. As a woman who had hair challenges her entire life, I also feel vulnerable when opting for a change in style. So, if I’m that concerned with my outer appearance, why wouldn’t I take the time to be as thorough when it comes to the myriad of medical side effects, conditions, or procedures I might be contemplating at any given time? Why wouldn’t anyone?

It’s understandable that doctors and nurses have significant time constraints due to patient load, pressure from outside forces (i.e. insurance companies, Medicare and Medicaid, etc). However, there’s sometimes a lack of the human connection. When you feel rushed through an appointment or unable to ask the questions you’d like answered, your faith in your medical team erodes.

Relationships take time and, as I mentioned, I feel most confident with my medical team from 11 years ago. They know me and I know them. I feel comfortable taking time to ask them questions and have gained so much faith in them that I implicitly trust their recommendations. But this trust takes years to build.

Things as simple as making water and reading materials available at doctor’s offices help as well – not only for patients, but for caretakers as well. Blood is drawn more easily when you’re hydrated. I learned this the hard way after being stuck like a pincushion over and over, finally made aware by a phlebotomist that drinking a lot of water prior to a draw helps. If you’re thirsty in an office you’ve been waiting a long time in, you shouldn’t have to risk going to the cafeteria or vending machines and losing your place in the queue. Reading materials or other simple entertainment make wait times faster and can dramatically lower stress you may have while trying to be patient awaiting your appointment.

So, what can docs (and nurses and office staff) learn from hair stylists? This: that patients are people...and customers as well. It makes sense from a standpoint of human compassion to provide these creature comforts, ample time for questions and explanations, and the desire to know patients as more than a 2PM appointment on the calendar. It makes sound business sense as well, because satisfied “customers” equal customer/patient loyalty and can increase referrals by family and friends who might need similar help.

Doctor’s offices are no exception. I refer friends and colleagues to both my hair stylist as well as my medical team. I’m happy to do so and they feel comfortable with the referrals from personal experience. You’ve got to know, like, and trust your doctors – and I do.

As patients, we also have to take responsibility for our health and comfort to the extent possible. Write down questions we want answered so that when we arrive at the appointment and have the ear of our doctor or nurse, we won’t forget what to ask and learn about. Ideally, bring a friend or relative with you to an important meeting with a doctor; two sets of ears are better than one, and time passes more quickly when you’ve got someone to talk with before and after the visit. Bring creature comforts that make you feel better – water, snacks (if you don’t need to be fasting), reading materials and layers of clothing to regulate body temperatures in primarily cold spaces.

What about the wine? Despite the suggested health benefits of one glass of wine a day – probably not necessary at a doctor’s office – or even allowed. Yet!

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