A few months ago, I popped a blood vessel in my eye. I was in the middle of a migraine—a common experience for me—but the eye thing was new. I panicked. Was I having a stroke? I wanted a qualified medical professional to tell me I wasn’t dying.
The telehealth doctor I called spent most of our 10-minute virtual appointment assuring me that migraines aren’t fatal. I was scattered and scared, and I couldn’t get across to him that I know what a migraine is. I have chronic migraines, but I felt too sick, too scared, to give a coherent medical history.
I needed him to evaluate this new development in the context of a lifetime of migraines. In the end, he told me not to worry and suggested I try treating the migraine with caffeine—something I’ve been doing since elementary school.
This telehealth doctor was one of eight medical professionals I’ve seen about my migraines in the last year. Each time, I have to give them my medical history in a clear, coherent manner, which is a challenge even when I’m feeling well…and I’m often not.
Jessica Ailani, M.D., works with patients like me regularly. She’s a neurologist and the director of the Medstar Georgetown Headache Center, a clinic where I’ve received treatment. She acknowledges that feeling sick and having to wait to see a doctor can complicate the already difficult task of reciting a medical history.
“You wait a really long time for any appointment to see a doctor, and then you have all these things you want to talk about,’” says Dr. Ailani, who is also a professor of clinical neurology at Medstar Georgetown University Hospital. “By the time you’re brought back to the room and the doctor comes in, you’re like ‘What was I going to say to you?’”
That said, Dr. Ailani says it’s easier for her to get down to the business of treating patients when she gets a full background on their chronic health condition right away.
About 60 percent of American adults experience some kind of chronic illness, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The category includes chronic migraines and chronic pain, as well as cancer, diabetes, and more.
Managing these conditions usually requires visiting a succession of health care providers, but appointments often aren’t satisfying. A 2017 systematic review in BMJ Open found that primary care doctor appointments in the U.S. average just over 20 minutes long. Globally, the picture is even bleaker: 50 percent of people spend 5 or fewer minutes with their doctors at primary care appointments. Although this review focused on primary care doctors rather than specialists, it still paints a picture of how frustratingly abrupt doctor’s appointments can be.
Going from doctor’s appointment to doctor’s appointment in search of answers about my migraines started to feel like a full-time job. So I started treating it like one. I wrote an elevator pitch.
Typically, an elevator pitch is a short biography, a networking tool designed to sell what you can do to someone quickly—like the time of one elevator ride. Instead of writing an elevator pitch to help me reach professional goals, I wrote an elevator pitch of my chronic illness to hopefully help me get the care I need.
I tested out my version of an elevator pitch when I met a new specialist a few months ago. With a bulleted list of everything I needed her to know at my fingertips, I didn’t miss any key details and got us talking about new migraine management tools much faster.
I created my elevator pitch for doctors and other care providers, but the format can be helpful for doctors unrelated to chronic illness, too. Whether visiting a dentist or a gynecologist, it’s an easy way to organize a medical history. I even quickly found myself using my chronic illness elevator pitch to explain my migraines to friends and coworkers. It makes a potentially awkward conversation quicker and smoother.
Intrigued? Here’s what to include in your own chronic illness elevator pitch.
Right up front, remind the doctor of key details like your name and why you came in to see them. Many medical professionals see a lot of people in one day! Help them remember the basics so you can move on more quickly.
In a career elevator pitch, you might mention how long you’ve been working in your field to establish that you’re an expert. Do something similar with your medical condition—how long have you been experiencing symptoms? This is also a good time to mention your family history of the illness, if you have one.
If you don’t think anyone in your family has a similar condition, it still doesn’t hurt to ask before you visit a new doctor. Dr. Ailani says it’s not uncommon for her patients to find out after their first visit that family members also have migraines, and that information can help her decide how best to treat them.
When you’re trying to get hired, you want to make sure your skills align with the opportunity. Medical consultations aren’t that different. This is the time to mention key details about your chronic illness experience that might make you a good candidate for this doctor, like if you saw they completed a fellowship about the specific illness subtype you think you have. Talking about these kinds of details can help you find out if your experience is outside their area of expertise.
When job hunting, you want to have numbers ready to showcase how successful you are. For chronic illnesses, you want to show how severe the condition is—how often you’re experiencing symptoms and to what degree.Dr. Ailani recommends keeping a calendar of flare-ups and symptoms, so you have concrete details to refer to. I keep a spreadsheet of every migraine I have and how severe it gets for this reason.
Job interviewers love to hear how you’ve solved problems at previous jobs. Doctors like to know what treatments you’ve already tried, and whether you had any success with them, so they can strategize a path forward. This should include medications you take, as well as other management tools, like physical therapy.
In the professional pitch, here’s where you make your real ask: What comes next after this conversation? Do you want to exchange email addresses for the future? Are you hoping they’ll keep you in mind for any upcoming openings? For chronic illnesses, on the other hand, this is a good time to clarify exactly what you want. That could be treatment. It could be a new diagnosis. It could be a referral to yet another new health provider. For instance, I know I’ll probably never have zero migraines, but here’s where I tell them I’d like to have fewer migraines and keep the ones that do occur from taking over my entire life.
It seems simple, but having my elevator pitch ready and written down has already come in handy in the last few weeks of managing my migraines. You can tweak your chronic illness elevator pitch for the situation—for instance, I generally don’t list my history of medication to my friends—but it should provide a backbone for difficult conversations about your health.
Of course, being able to describe your chronic illness is only one step toward managing it. There still might be a long, frustrating road ahead. But as anyone who’s dealt with chronic illness can tell you, shortcuts that make your life easier are key. Your chronic illness elevator pitch can be another tool in your belt.