Iatrophobia (Fear of Doctors)
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What is iatrophobia?
People with iatrophobia (eye-AT-rah-FO-bee-ah) have an extreme fear of doctors or medical tests. The word originates from “iatros,” the Greek word for healer, and “phobos,” which means fear.
Someone with iatrophobia may refuse to seek medical attention even when they’re very sick or showing signs of a serious illness. They may ignore symptoms until they need hospitalization.
What is a phobia?
Phobias are anxiety disorders that cause extreme, irrational fear of something, far beyond the actual danger it presents. Iatrophobia is a type of phobia known as a specific phobic disorder.
You may be afraid of doctors or medical procedures because of past trauma. Or fear may stem from the connection to blood, injuries and injections (needles).
How common is iatrophobia?
Specific phobic disorders affect about 12% of American adults and 19% of children and adolescents. While there aren’t statistics just for iatrophobia, one survey found that 1 in 3 Americans avoid going to their doctor, even when they think they need medical care.
The number of people with iatrophobia may have increased as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. People may fear going to their doctor due to the risk of virus exposure. They also may have heard that the nasal swab test for COVID-19 was uncomfortable or painful, making them afraid of the test. People with iatrophobia may be less likely to get tested even after a known virus exposure or the onset of COVID-19 symptoms.
Symptoms and Causes
Who is at risk for iatrophobia (fear of doctors)?
People who have illness anxiety disorder or IAD (formerly known as hypochondria) are more likely to develop a fear of doctors or medical tests. IAD causes you to excessively worry that you’re getting sick or are already ill. Someone with IAD may be afraid that their doctor will diagnose them with an illness or incurable disease.
You may also develop iatrophobia if you smoke or have a substance use disorder. You may fear seeing your doctor because they might give you bad news about your health or suggest you quit using these substances.
What causes iatrophobia?
Children may develop a fear of doctors because they associate the doctor’s office with getting shots for vaccinations. This fear may carry over into adulthood.
You may be more likely to have a fear of doctors or medical tests if you:
- Had multiple doctor visits and tests as a child to manage a health condition.
- Received subpar medical care or had a bad experience with your doctor.
- Have a chronic condition like diabetes or a life-threatening disease like cancer that requires frequent, sometimes painful tests or treatments.
- Received bad news from your doctor regarding your health or the health of a loved one.
- Served as a caregiver, accompanying a loved one to frequent doctor visits and tests.
- Lost a loved one to a medical condition or accident while the person was receiving care from a doctor.
- Have a family history of phobias or anxiety disorder.
What other phobias are associated with iatrophobia?
It’s common to have more than one phobia. For instance, someone who’s afraid of doctors is more likely to have dentophobia, a fear of dentists.
You may also have:
- Carcinophobia (fear of getting cancer).
- Cardiophobia (fear of heart disease or heart attacks).
- Claustrophobia (fear of enclosed spaces like MRI machines).
- Hemophobia (fear of blood).
- Mysophobia or germophobia (fear of germs).
- Nosocomephobia (fear of hospitals).
- Nosophobia (fear of disease).
- Pharmacophobia (fear of medication).
- Thanatophobia (fear of death).
- Tomophobia (fear of medical procedures like surgeries).
- Traumatophobia (fear of injury).
- Trypanophobia (fear of needles).
What are the symptoms of iatrophobia?
Someone with a fear of doctors is usually aware that the phobia is illogical. Regardless of this knowledge, they’re unable to control their physical reactions when they see their doctor. They often have symptoms even when they think about going to their doctor or getting a medical test.
You may experience these symptoms:
- Dry mouth.
- Extreme feeling of dread or terror.
- Profuse sweating (hyperhidrosis).
- Rapid breathing and heart rate or heart palpitations (racing heart that may skip beats).
- Shaking or trembling.
Diagnosis and Tests
How is iatrophobia diagnosed?
If iatrophobia prevents you from seeing your doctor, a behavioral health specialist like a counselor, social worker or psychologist can help. Your clergy member may also be qualified to provide counseling.
Iatrophobia is a situational-specific phobic disorder. That means it occurs in particular situations (when you think about or see a doctor). For a formal diagnosis, symptoms must meet these criteria set by the American Psychiatric Association (APA):
- An intense fear of doctors or medical tests that persists for at least six months.
- Symptom onset when you see a doctor, get a medical test or think about these scenarios.
- Extreme fear or anxiety that makes you avoid seeing a doctor or getting medical tests, even when you feel unwell.
- Symptoms that affect your health and quality of life.
- Severe fear, anxiety or dread that don’t match the real danger.
Management and Treatment
How do you treat iatrophobia?
A counselor or therapist can help you work on overcoming a fear of doctors or medical tests through the use of:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a form of psychotherapy (talk therapy), helps you explore the thoughts, feelings and behaviors related to your fears. You can learn strategies to change these perceptions and your behaviors.
- Exposure therapy uses a combination of relaxation techniques and gradual exposure to phobia triggers to make you less sensitive to the fear (desensitization).
- Hypnotherapy helps you change your thinking about doctors and medical tests through hypnotic therapies or trances.
- Anti-anxiety drugs or antidepressants ease symptoms as you work to overcome the phobia in therapy. Counselors and psychologists can’t prescribe these medicines because they don’t have a medical degree. However, they can help you see a psychiatrist, a psychiatric nurse practitioner, primary care physician or other licensed prescriber so you can get the medicine you need.
How can you manage iatrophobia?
Delaying medical care or tests can jeopardize your health. These steps can help you get the care you need while minimizing the risk of triggering iatrophobia symptoms:
- Use telemedicine, an appointment over video, phone call or text chat, when available and appropriate.
- Ask for the first appointment of the day to minimize your time at your doctor’s office and avoid sitting in the waiting room.
- Take a book or magazine to distract you, or ask a family member or friend to come along for support.
- Choose a doctor’s office that has a relaxing, less clinical environment, preferably not in a hospital or medical building.
- Look for a doctor who dresses more casually and is willing to spend the time you need to make it through the appointment.
- Tell your doctor about your worries. They may be able to help you address them.
What are the complications of iatrophobia?
Skipping medical exams and tests puts you at risk for serious, often irreversible disease complications that can affect your quality of life and longevity. For instance, undiagnosed, untreated high blood pressure and high cholesterol increase your risk for a potentially fatal stroke or heart attack. Regularly seeing your doctor is critical to good health.
Someone with iatrophobia may also have white coat syndrome. This term refers to high blood pressure that occurs only when you see a doctor. When you take your blood pressure at home, the numbers are in a healthy range. The phobia and related stressors may cause this spike in blood pressure.
You’re also at risk for panic attacks when you see your doctor or get medical tests. Repeated panic attacks can lead to panic disorder.
When should I seek help?
Everyone needs to seek medical care at certain times. Reach out to your healthcare provider if you experience:
- Panic attacks.
- Persistent anxiety that interferes with daily life or sleeping.
- Signs of depression or problems with substances.
- Symptoms of illness that require medical care.
What questions should I ask?
You may want to ask your healthcare provider:
- What’s causing this phobia?
- Are there options that might help make it easier for me to get medical care?
- What’s the best treatment for me?
- How long will I need therapy?
- Can medications help?
- Should I watch for signs of complications?
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Fear of doctors or medical tests (iatrophobia) can significantly and negatively impact your health. People need routine doctor visits, blood tests and other procedures to help identify early signs of disease. Healthcare providers offer treatments that can make your life more comfortable and add years to your life. A mental health professional can help you overcome iatrophobia. You may also find it helpful to let your doctor and healthcare team know about the phobia so they can take steps to make you feel more comfortable in medical settings.
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