Yes, Doctor, I am a Vegan: Finding a Health Care Provider You Can Work With
My teenage daughter’s usual pediatrician just retired from the practice so her most recent visit was with a new doctor. “How did it go?” I asked in the car. “Fine,” my daughter said and told me a few things the pediatrician had told her. “But did she ask about your diet?” I couldn’t help asking. “She did ask some questions about what I eat,” my daughter said, “but I answered all of them and she said it sounded like I knew what I was doing.” This is exactly what I hoped would happen – information was exchanged and our family’s vegan diet would not be a major focus of my daughter’s relationship with her doctor.
My experiences with health care providers and my vegan diet have been generally positive. One doctor said he wished more of his patients were as aware of nutrition, an internist asked for information she could pass on to her newly vegan daughter, and a pediatrician requested materials she could give to another vegan family. Other doctors rarely mention diet and, since, it’s not related to my care, I don’t either. Of course there are the exceptions – our first pediatrician relentlessly stressed chicken soup as the cure-all for whatever ailed my daughter; he thought he was hilarious; I found him obnoxious. It may help that I have credentials and can cite the medical literature but I still think that an open doctor/patient dialogue about vegan diets is very possible in most cases.
Finding a Practitioner. If you’re looking for a veg-friendly health care provider, ask the experts – other vegans. Local veg groups may know of doctors who people like or may have members who are health care providers. If you don’t get names there, ask around for doctors your non-veg friends and neighbors like – chances are that if a doctor is open and conversant, he or she will be more accepting of your veganism. Of course, for some specialties your diet will not be terribly important and your food choices may never even come up. Other doctors are more apt to treat diet-associated conditions – internists, gastroenterologists, endocrinologists, cardiologists, for instance – or to be interested in diet because it has an important role in the outcome of their patients – pediatricians and obstetricians. These are specialties where finding a veg-friendly practitioner can be especially important.
And, of course, you need to consider whether or not the doctor you’re interested in is covered by your health insurance.
Meet and Greet Appointments. Many practices set aside some appointments for new patients to meet the doctor. These provide a good opportunity to discuss your questions and get a sense of the doctor’s philosophy and style.
Doing Your Homework. Before seeing a new doctor, develop a short list of questions. Focus on any concerns that you have or questions about how the practice handles things.
The Initial Visit Besides having your questions answered and getting a sense of the doctor’s style, this initial meeting is also a time for you to share information. You can say that you are vegan and tell how long you’ve been vegan. You may want to give a short description of your diet (categories of foods you eat and which foods you don’t eat). If you think you’re eating a healthy diet, say so. Remember, you don’t have to sell the doctor on the merits of veganism in general; you just want respect for your choices.
Your doctor may compliment you on your diet and may ask some questions. Come prepared to explain in simple terms where you get key nutrients like protein, vitamin B12, and calcium. Remember, the doctor may have little knowledge of vegan diets so don’t assume that you’re being challenged – it could be genuine curiosity. If you are positive and upbeat and are willing to supply information, the doctor sees that you are interested in working as a partner in your health care and that you’ve thought seriously about your diet.
If your doctor seems interested, offer to share some references like the American Dietetic Association’s recent position paper on vegetarian diets.
Of course diet is just one part of the equation. As you talk with your prospective doctor you should also be assessing the doctor’s attitude and your overall reaction. Are your concerns being addressed? Do you feel rushed or like the doctor isn’t listening to you? Is this someone you could work with? You may choose a doctor who’s not that knowledgeable about vegan diets but has other positive qualities and seems respectful. Recognize that doctors are not, for the most, part nutrition experts. If you have a nutrition question and don’t feel that your doctor is able to address it, talk to a registered dietitian.
Do I Have to Tell the Doctor I’m Vegan? Assuming that you’re seeing a practitioner who either asks about your diet or where diet may affect your condition, you really should mention your diet. First of all, it’s best to be honest about things medical. If you aren’t truthful about being vegan and the doctor finds out, she would be right to wonder what else you’re not telling her. In addition, not mentioning your diet can waste your doctor’s time and yours. You wouldn’t have to listen to an explanation of high cholesterol foods to avoid if your doctor knew you were vegan and that your diet was cholesterol-free. Being open about your diet also keeps your doctor from telling you to do things that you won’t comply with. If your blood tests show that you’re low in iron, there’s no point in telling you to eat meat; your doctor should realize that vegan iron sources are what should be discussed.
I’ve presented a best-case scenario. Hopefully your experience with finding a doctor will be positive or at least neutral. You may, however, run into someone who continues to put down vegan diets or tells you that you have to eat meat. Unless there’s some other compelling reason for working with this doctor (he’s the only person in a 500 mile area who treats your condition), you should probably end the visit and interview another doctor.