Bringing up a sensitive personal topic with a loved one can feel awkward enough. But when the topic is related to your body or a bodily function that people don’t typically discuss, and you're talking to a doctor you see maybe twice a year, that awkwardness can get dialed up a notch (or two). But the “embarrassing” questions and concerns we have about our health are subjects that healthcare providers deal with all the time (even if those subjects don’t make for good chit-chat at a party or around the watercooler). And discussing your health concerns frankly with your provider is key to good health.
“We are all human, and there is no question that is out of bounds when it comes to your health and well-being. Chances are, if your provider hasn’t experienced the same issue themselves, they have already cared for someone who has,” says Carbon Health’s Aaron Weinberg, MD, MPhil.
Feelings of embarrassment are powerful. However, reminding yourself to not let the awkwardness win can be just as powerful. No matter how embarrassing or “silly” your question or concern may feel, it’s better to address it sooner, rather than later, before a minor issue has a chance to turn into something more serious. Overcoming feelings of discomfort will help you advocate for your own health.
Everyone has unique experiences and unique bodies. Still, there are some potentially embarrassing topics that almost everyone thinks about at some point in their lives. Some of these common health concerns include issues or symptoms related to bowel movements and urination, like constipation or incontinence. Other topics people find difficult to discuss involve sex: sexual function, libido, and sexually transmitted diseases.
Mental health is also a sensitive topic for many people, and broaching concerns about depression, anxiety, or another mental health condition can feel uncomfortable.
Body odors, bad breath, hair loss, and other topics related to personal hygiene or appearance may also feel embarrassing to bring up — but remember that healthcare providers are accustomed to discussing anything related to the body.
Another important aspect of advocating for your own health involves critically engaging with your doctor. It may feel uncomfortable to ask your doctor follow-up questions about their medical advice, or to ask them to repeat themselves if you didn’t understand them. But your healthcare provider wants you to have as much information as possible!
Getting information about the side effects of a prescribed medicine, alternative treatment plans, or second opinions, for instance, can help you make a well-informed decision about your own health.
It’s also common for patients to feel uncomfortable about the financial impact a treatment plan or medication might have. However, doctors who understand a patient's financial constraints can recommend treatment or prescription alternatives, as well as programs designed to help patients find low-cost medicines.
Let your doctor know that you are uncomfortable. Prefacing the topic with phrases like “I haven't brought this up to anyone before” or “This is embarrassing for me to talk about” can indicate to your doctor that they should prepare for a sensitive topic, and that will help them respond to you better. And just getting the fact that you’re embarrassed out in the open can help alleviate embarrassment!
Be honest, open, and direct with your question or concern. Don't feel like you have to know exactly what it is that is happening to your body or why. Describe your experiences or symptoms in a way that makes sense to you.
Write down your experiences, symptoms, or questions in advance. If there are many, make a list and order your concerns from most to least important. This can help you organize your thoughts and remember small details you might otherwise forget in the moment. You can even give this document to your doctor if you are not feeling comfortable discussing the topic aloud.
Engage with people you trust and feel comfortable with. It may be your doctor, but it might also be a nurse or a physician assistant. You may also feel more comfortable broaching certain topics if you have a friend or family member with you. Bring this person along as support if you can. Having someone you trust in the room with you can help get the conversation rolling.
Are you ready to ask those embarrassing health questions? Book an appointment with a Carbon Health physician — we are an inclusive and judgment-free healthcare provider with a mission to make great healthcare accessible to everyone.