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What to do when a loved one refuses medical treatment
You want the best for those you care about. But what if they refuse to get the medical help they need? It can be frustrating and scary. Here’s how to help them overcome their fears.
Feeling stressed or anxious at the very thought of seeing a doctor is more common than you might think. In fact, about 33% of Americans don’t go to the doctor even when they need help.1
It could be fear, denial or plain-old stubbornness that holds them back. But dealing with someone who refuses to get medical care can be tough. You might feel frustrated, angry or scared — and understandably so. You’re worried about your loved one’s health.
Here, doctors weigh in on why some people delay seeking care, and how you can help them break through the barriers.
Why do some people fear seeing a doctor?
People put off medical appointments for a whole bunch of reasons. One common one: denial. “The person doesn’t believe they’re sick or that they have a problem,” says Andrew Cougill, MD. He’s a family medicine doctor for American Health Network, part of Optum, in Indianapolis.
It’s also common to feel anxious or fearful because of a past event. Those feelings can be rooted in childhood, explains Dr. Cougill. Or the person may have had a bad experience in a hospital, such as the loss of a loved one.
If they’re not feeling well, they may not want bad news. Or maybe they lack trust in their health care team. “Some people don’t trust medicine or health care in general,” says Dr. Cougill. “So they may believe someone is trying to scam them or give them medication they don’t need.”
Fears and phobias aside, they could also just be worried about the cost. About half of Americans went without care last year due to money worries.2
“Unfortunately, cost is sometimes a concern,” says Dr. Cougill. He adds that most health plans cover preventive care once a year. (Preventive care looks for problems early on when they’re easier to care for.) “I suggest patients use the benefits they already paid for. We can address issues at yearly physicals or at least start a workup if it’s needed.”
Who is likely to stress out about doctor visits?
There’s a stereotype that men are bad about going to the doctor. Turns out there’s some truth to that. “Men are less likely than women to seek medical care,” says Rudy Nydegger, PhD. He’s a professor emeritus of psychology and management at Union College in Schenectady, New York. He’s also the chief of psychology at Ellis Hospital in Schenectady.
Another recent survey found that women were 20% more likely to have seen a doctor within the past year. Men were nearly three times as likely to have gone at least five years without seeing a doctor.3
What can happen if my loved one doesn’t go to the doctor?
It’s easy to jump to worst-case scenarios. But the risk that they’re taking depends on their health and how long they’ve put off treatment. If they don’t go to their yearly physical, they may miss a chance to catch problems early. That’s the best time to deal with them. (Learn more about the screenings most adults need.)
How can I help my loved one feel more at ease with seeking care?
Waiting for them to have a sudden change of heart may not be the best strategy. Consider the tips below to help make the situation less stressful.
Be understanding. Approach the topic with an acceptance of how they feel. Don’t pressure, lecture or nag, says Nydegger. “This tactic can actually make the situation worse. They could become more deeply entrenched in their fear. Or they may defend their ‘right’ to avoid care,” he adds.
Learn why they’re hesitant. Maybe they’re afraid of seeing doctors in general. Or maybe they just don’t like the doctor they have. Many people can feel judged, rushed or dismissed during an exam. Suggest they find a different doctor or care team that makes them feel heard. Here's how to know you've got a great provider.
Bring up video or phone visits, or even self-care. Having many choices can help them relax and feel more in control. “A mental health professional can help people cope with these issues,” says Nydegger. Mental health support resources from Optum can help.
Offer to go with them. “It often makes the patient more at ease to have someone they’re comfortable with in the room,” says Dr. Cougill. Doctor appointments can also be full of information. It may be helpful to have someone else there to listen or take notes.
Explore home visits. Ask them to find out if their insurance company reimburses for doctors who make house calls. They’re growing in popularity.5
Remember, the goal is to help your loved one feel more comfortable. It might take a little trial and error. But with your support and a little gentle persistence, you can help them get the care they need.
- Cleveland Clinic. Iatrophobia (fear of doctors). Last reviewed December 10, 2021. Accessed June 28, 2022.
- Kaiser Family Foundation. Americans’ challenges with health care costs. Published December 14, 2021. Accessed June 28, 2022.
- OnlineDoctor. Nearly 1 in 5 Americans haven’t seen a doctor in over five years. Published April 14, 2021. Accessed June 28, 2022.
- BMC Medicine. Morbidity, mortality and missed appointments in healthcare: a national retrospective data linkage study. Published January 11, 2019. Accessed June 28, 2022.
- Journal of Patient-Centered Research and Reviews. House calls are reaching the tipping point — now we need the workforce. Published July 29, 2019. Accessed June 28, 2022.
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