Week 1: Understanding irritable bowel syndrome

Week 4: Healthy thinking, healthy self

Week 5: Balancing activity and reclaiming your life

Week 6: Maintaining your gains and staying well

The patient-doctor relationship

If you have irritable bowel syndrome-like symptoms, it is essential to speak to your doctor. As we mentioned last week, you cannot self-diagnose irritable bowel syndrome. Instead, you must go through a process of ruling out other more serious disorders. This can only be done using medical tests administered by a trained medical professional. Trying to go without medical care is dangerous, as you may misunderstand symptoms and fail to receive the right treatment.  

Having a positive relationship with your doctor is always a good thing, but it seems to be even more important with irritable bowel syndrome. A strong patient-doctor relationship has been linked to more positive treatment outcomes amongst people with irritable bowel syndrome. As you know, irritable bowel syndrome is a long term condition and symptoms often increase and decrease over time. As such, having ongoing medical support from a knowledgeable and understanding healthcare provider can be extremely important.

Even if you see an allied health (e.g., a therapist) or specialist healthcare provider (e.g., a gastroenterologist) for your irritable bowel syndrome, it can help to have a primary care doctor or general practitioner (GP) as part of your support team. Your GP can help coordinate your care by referring you to other health professionals as needed. They can also monitor your general health and provide appropriate advice as needed.

Ideally, your doctor should:

  • Be familiar with irritable bowel syndrome and its related conditions 
  • Know all of your medical history 
  • Understand your symptoms and how they impact you
  • Acknowledge your discomfort and distress
  • Provide appropriate education on irritable bowel syndrome and its treatment 
  • Take time to address your questions and concerns 

A key part of any positive patient-doctor relationship is effective communication. This is especially important for functional conditions like irritable bowel syndrome, which don’t show up on medical tests. Communication should be effective both ways. As a patient, it is important that you know your rights and speak your mind about your care and concerns. You should aim to be an active participant in your own treatment. We discuss how you can plan ahead and communicate more effectively in the sections below. 

Another important aspect of the relationship is that you feel heard and understood. Have you ever left a medical appointment feeling worse than when you went in, perhaps because you weren’t listened to or validated? Unfortunately, this experience is all too common. The average GP visit is often too brief and doesn’t allow for a caring and comprehensive approach. You can try to reduce the impact of this by being proactive and prepared for your medical appointments.   

If you’re seeing a doctor about your irritable bowel syndrome for the first time, here’s what you can expect. The GP should give you a complete physical check, run some blood tests and take a stool sample (yes, you will have to ‘scoop your poop’). This will help them rule out other possible causes for your symptoms. At this point, there should be enough information to determine if you have irritable bowel syndrome. From here, the GP can give their treatment recommendations. Depending on your age and symptoms, your GP may also suggest you see a gastroenterologist for further recommendations. 

If your doctor does not follow the above procedure, there may or may not be a good reason for it. It’s worth asking them about their plan so that you’re both on the same page. If you aren’t convinced with the answer you receive, perhaps talk it over with a friend or seek a second opinion. If your doctor ever says anything about your symptoms not being ‘real’, they may not be the best fit to help you with this issue. Think about how you feel

Take a moment to think about how you feel when you have visited medical professionals in the past. If you have a current doctor helping you with your irritable bowel syndrome, reflect on how you feel about the care you’re receiving. Do you leave feeling reassured and optimistic or misunderstood and hopeless? If you don’t have a doctor you feel comfortable with yet, think about what you would like from a future patient-doctor relationship.