There is no relationship quite like the doctor-patient relationship. You literally put your health, well-being and even life in another person’s hands. You can do research, talk to others with similar symptoms and join support groups. You can guess at a diagnosis. But no matter how much you do, when you need medical care, you need your doctor. And you need to have explicit trust in their knowledge and their desire to see you well.
When that trust is broken it can cause lasting damage, to your emotional well being as well as your health. Doctors are people and most are kind, caring and supportive. They sincerely want what is best for their patients. But some use their power to intimidate, humiliate or bully. They use their position to take advantage of patients, emotionally and sexually. A google search for "doctor abuse" provides you with a plethora of personal stories and headlines outlining sexual abuse by a doctor.
Abuse can happen anywhere and takes many different forms:
- One of the health guides at Health Central went through such an experience and shares her story: A Plastic Surgeon Sexualized My Exam: Trauma Inflicted by the Hands of a Healer
- Recently, a friend called me upset about a doctor’s visit. She was experiencing numbing and tingling in her feet, hands and face. The physician’s assistant who examined her didn’t believe her. She belittled her and made her feel small and inconsequential. My friend looked for a new doctor.
- A woman I know went to the dentist years ago and experienced verbal abuse. The dentist made fun of her, yelled at her and admonished her for the state of her teeth. She went for a second visit and the same thing occurred. She had already been embarrassed about how her teeth looked and even more so after the exam. But it distressed her so much that she didn’t visit another dentist for several more years and by then her only option was to get dentures.
Whether the abuse is one-time or ongoing, it can be traumatic and cause lasting damage. It can develop into anxiety or post traumatic stress disorder. Our Health Guide writes, "In the weeks that followed I became fixated and re-experienced the assault over and over by way of flashbacks and thoughts. Sometimes the bad memories happened during sex with my husband and it would force me to tears. It was always there, every minute of the day. I even once dreamed that the surgeon took my abuse to a deeper level of sexual assault. Mostly, I had sleepless nights…I became withdrawn, unable to go about my daily life, even small decisions became difficult."
PTSD, Acute Stress Disorder and Trauma
Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is often thought of as occurring after years of abuse or exposure to stressful events, such as child abuse or soldier’s constant exposure to violence. But PTSD and acute stress disorder can happen after a single traumatic and stressful event, and often do. For example, PTSD can develop after witnessing a car accident, violent crime or natural disaster, all one-time events. Acute stress disorder typically develops and ends within one month of a stressful event. Both PTSD and acute stress disorder include:
- Sleep disturbances
- High levels of anxiety
- Problems concentrating
- Emotional numbness
One of the main differences between PTSD and acute stress disorder is the length of time symptoms last. In acute stress disorder symptoms usually last anywhere from a few days to one month. If symptoms last more than one month, then PTSD is often diagnosed.
If you have experienced abuse, it is important to seek help. Unfortunately, while there are guidelines for physician abuse, to many times this type of abuse goes unreported. In the case of our Health Guide, she reported the incident to other doctors who didn’t want to be involved. They didn’t want to report a fellow physician. This adds frustration and feeling helpless and powerless, often increasing feelings of anxiety.
In an ideal world, all such incidents would be reported and the offender appropriately punished. In this world, that doesn’t happen. Some doctors are held responsible while others are allowed to continue their abuse. You must decide to do what is best for you.
No matter what you choose, you don’t need to continue to suffer. Help is available for both acute stress disorder and PTSD. Keep in mind:
- The abuse you suffered was not your fault. The doctor who committed it is solely at fault. He (or she) used power and position to take advantage of you.
- Most doctors do not abuse patients. One of the hardest steps is to contact another medical professional. Your trust has been broken and it is easy to feel a general sense of uneasiness and mistrust of all medical professionals. Remember that most doctors are caring and supportive.
The first step is to find and talk to someone you trust.
In addition to medical care, you might find meditation, yoga and other relaxation techniques helpful at relieving symptoms and intense feelings of anxiety. If you do have acute stress disorder, choosing to ignore it can put you at a higher risk of developing PTSD.
For more information on physician abuse:
TELL - Therapy Exploitation Link Line
RAINN- Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network
Eileen Bailey is a freelance health writer. She is the author of What Went Right: Reframe Your Thinking for a Happier Now, Idiot’s Guide to Adult ADHD, Idiot’s Guide to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Essential Guide to Overcoming Obsessive Love, and Essential Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome. She can be found on Twitter @eileenmbailey and on Facebook at eileenmbailey.