The MastAttack 107: The Layperson’s Guide to Understanding Mast Cell Diseases, Part 44

53.  How do I get effective care from providers that don’t know anything about mast cell disease?

One of the most frustrating and concerning issues for mast cell patients is the need for involved specialty care when there are only a handful of experts worldwide. Many of us need so much care that there could be dozens of providers involved. Obviously there are no hard and fast rules that will guarantee a positive interaction with providers that don’t know about mast cell disease, but I will tell you what works for me.

My general recommendations about how to increase your chances of good care from providers are as follows:

  1. Do not expect most providers to know about mast cell disease or how to treat it. Patients are often upset to discover that healthcare providers know nothing about mast cell disease or how to treat it. There are currently over 7000 rare diseases described in literature. About 25,000,000 Americans have at least one rare disease. That is a lot of rare. It is impossible to know the ins and outs of so many diseases. Furthermore, medical education in recent years hinges not upon knowing everything but knowing where to find the knowledge you need. It is less important for your provider to know about mast cell disease than it is to know where they can find reliable information about it.
  • I never expect any provider to have heard of mast cell disease because it made me so mad so often when I did. I also find that I feel less hostile towards providers when I don’t expect them to have prior knowledge about my diseases. Less hostility improves any interaction.
  1. Have a script prepared for when you meet a provider that you don’t know. This is what I say after we exchange pleasantries:
  • “Before we get started, I want to make sure that you know that I have a rare blood disorder called systemic mastocytosis. Have you ever seen a patient with that before?”
  • If they have seen a patient with it before, great! Either way, I say this next:
  • “The hallmark of mast cell disease is severe allergic reaction or anaphylaxis to a variety of triggers without the involvement of IgE. It would really help me a lot if you could be really clear about what you’re doing and exactly what medications or materials I am being given. Also, if I feel anaphylaxis starting, I will use my Epipen first and then call for help.” (Please note that I administer epi myself immediately as directed by my immunologist. Speak with your doctor to find out what is the best course of action for you.)
  • This script does several things. Firstly, it lets them know that I have a reasonable understanding of my disease and the risks I face. This makes me a partner in my care. Secondly, it gives the provider a clear understanding of my expectations. They understand that I expect them to tell me everything they are doing and what materials and medications they are using. They understand there is the risk of anaphylaxis and that I have been given an Epipen to manage that. They understand that I will use this first and then call for help. In particular, the part about the Epipen is really important. Patients sometimes run into trouble when they use their own Epipen because providers are not expecting that and don’t react to it well. This conversation helps to avoid such a confrontration.
  • If I have seen this provider before, but it has been a while, or I remember them as being particularly unaware of mast cell disease, my script is basically the same. Something like,
  • “I just want to remind you that I have a rare blood disorder called systemic mastocytosis. The hallmark of mast cell disease is severe allergic reaction or anaphylaxis to a variety of triggers without the involvement of IgE. It would really help me a lot if you could be really clear about what you’re doing and exactly what medications or materials I am being given. Also, if I feel anaphylaxis starting, I will use my Epipen first and then call for help.”
  1. If you have a scheduled appointment or test somewhere you have not been seen before, call ahead a week or two before the appointment. Leave a message for the provider or their surrogate asking them to call you. This is the script I use:
  • “Hi, my name is Lisa Klimas, and I have an appointment with Dr. Yahoo at Some Date at Some Time Somewhere. I was just calling to make sure Dr. Yahoo is aware that I have a rare blood disorder called systemic mastocytosis. This disorder can cause allergic reactions to common things so there are certain precautions for mast cell patients. I would appreciate it if you could call me at your earliest convenience. Additionally, my mast cell specialist Dr. Mast Cell is available at Dr. Mast Cell’s number if you have any questions or concerns.”
  • Once again, we are clearly communicating our expectations. This also gives them extra time to learn a bit about mast cell disease or consult with your specialist so that they are comfortable seeing you.
  1. Be pleasant. This is hard to do sometimes, especially if you are scared. But if you can do this, things go much smoother. Nobody likes to be told what to do, even if they need to. Nobody likes to feel stupid. Be respectful. They will be much more likely to view you as an intriguing rare patient as opposed to some bitchy lady with masto (not speaking from personal experience, of course.)
  2. Do not argue. This is so, SO difficult sometimes but it is critical that you do not argue. Mast cell patients require a degree of control in order to mitigate the risk of reactions or anaphylaxis. Once you start arguing, you are no longer in control. You have given that control up. You will be viewed as an adversary. That is not going to get you anywhere.
  3. If you break rule 4 or 5, apologize.
  4. Be knowledgeable about your disease. You are your own best defense against dangerous health situations. You do not have to know everything but you should know where to direct providers for the information they need.
  5. When you give information about your disease, it has to be correct. This is so, so important. If you do not know the answer to something, do not invent one. Just say that you don’t know and that you can find out, or suggest a place where they can get that information.
  6. Limit the drama and intrigue when you are telling providers about your disease. There is a very fine line between being informative and scaring them. Help providers to feel comfortable about treating you.
  7. Have handy literature to educate providers about mast cell disease and how to manage mast cell patients safely. The literature should be short and comprehensive. They are much more likely to read something if it’s short and to the point. I let them know if that they are interested in further resources that I can provide those as well. I personally prefer to email literature to providers but hard copies are okay, too.
  • There are a few concise, effective papers that are great for this. This paper by Molderings and Afrin is one of my favorites. This one by Valent is good, too.
  • There are also materials prepared by organizations that are helpful for this. The Mastocytosis Society has materials for providers. On this site, I wrote the Provider Primer series for this specific purpose.
  1. Know the premedication and rescue medication protocols by heart. Also carry them in hard copy. You can find that here. If your protocols vary a lot from the general recommendations, ask for your doctor to write a letter describing your protocol that can be given to providers as needed.
  2. Know the difference between inconvenience and danger. This is critical. You have to know when a situation is dangerous and not just frustrating. There’s a big difference between refusing to give you epi during flagrant anaphylaxis and a provider making a stupid comment that being too hot can’t cause anaphylaxis. Your end game is always to get the care you need in a safe environment. Not every provider is going to be nice about your needs but if they are getting met, it’s not always worth it to argue.
  3. Remember that providers are doing their job. I have seen people report doctors who see multiple mast cell patients because the doctor was rude. I cannot stress enough that there is not a limitless pool of providers willing to treat mast cell patients. We do not want to give providers a reason to refuse to treat us. As much as possible, if you really can’t let a situation go, try to resolve it directly with the provider.
  4. Strongly encourage that your local providers establish a relationship with experts. This improves communication and encourages your local providers to seek help when they are unsure about how to help you.