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Iatrophobia

What Is It, Symptoms, Diagnosis, and More

Author: Lily Guo

Editors: Alyssa Haag, Ian Mannarino, MD

Illustrator: Jessica Reynolds, MS

Copyeditor: David G. Walker


What is iatrophobia?

Iatrophobia refers to an intense and irrational fear of doctors, medical care, or the medical care system. It is a relatively common condition and can negatively impact an individual's health and their relationships with their physicians. 

How do you pronounce iatrophobia?

Iatrophobia is pronounced eye-a-trah-fo-bee-ah. 

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What causes iatrophobia?

There may be several causes of iatrophobia, including the individual’s fear of illness and the medical exam, fear of the physician’s reaction, and fear related to barriers to care. Individuals likely experience multiple fears simultaneously, which may lead to more problematic interactions with physicians or provide further reasons for avoidance of medical care. 

Examples of potential fears related to receiving care include feeling pain, discomfort, or embarrassment during a physical examination. They may also be worried about receiving bad news or having additional harm come to them as a result of the exam. Other concerns include worries about whether their symptoms are actually indicative of disease, if the symptom is serious enough for medical attention, or that the physician will discount or trivialize their symptom. Furthermore, individuals may be experiencing barriers to care, including a lack of fluency in the language that the healthcare provider speaks or being unable to pay for the services. Those with limited general health literacy may also avoid visits with their physician out of fear that they will be unable to communicate with or understand the physician.

What are the signs and symptoms of iatrophobia?

Some signs and symptoms of iatrophobia include nausea, dry mouth, dizziness, heart palpitations, breathlessness, excessive sweating and shaking in association with entering a healthcare setting. There may also be an obsessive worry about visiting the doctor or hospital, and one might find it difficult or impossible to focus on other tasks. Upon reaching the doctor’s office, someone with iatrophobia is likely to experience feelings of anxiety, panic, and a sensation of being out of control of their situation. They might sweat, shake, cry, or even refuse to enter the examination room. Many people with iatrophobia worry excessively that they might need to see a doctor, even if no visits are currently scheduled. They may become obsessed with minor ailments, fearing that they will require medical treatment. It is relatively common for iatrophobia to occur alongside illness anxiety disorder, which is a persistent fear of having a serious or life-threatening illness despite few or no symptoms. Lastly, it is common for those who experience iatrophobia to also experience the phenomenon of white-coat hypertension in which one’s blood pressure measurement is higher in a medical setting than it is in other settings, such as one’s home. 

How is iatrophobia diagnosed?

Iatrophobia is usually a clinical diagnosis that is made by a qualified mental health professional. Since it is common to be nervous and anxious before a visit to the doctor’s office, it can be difficult to assess if symptoms are indicative of iatrophobia. The clinician may ask questions to assess if the person spends a great deal of time thinking about an upcoming visit and if they are able to distract themselves from the anxiety. Those who are simply nervous about a doctor’s visit typically do not try to avoid them, while those with iatrophobia may delay check-ups, vaccinations, and other routine care. In some cases, they might suffer through even relatively serious illnesses on their own, rather than seeking professional treatment.

How do you overcome iatrophobia?

To overcome iatrophobia, individuals can see a mental health professional at a pace and in an environment they are comfortable with. For example, mental health providers often offer services via telephone or online, and some practice in a setting that is more like a home than the doctor’s office. They can also provide soothing music and television shows as well as other services designed for relaxation. One may also choose to schedule appointments in the morning to avoid long lines and time spent in the waiting room or bring a friend for support. The clinician providing treatment will allow the individual to be comfortable with the office environment before progressing the treatment. 

Seeking treatment for iatrophobia is not easy, but there are certainly treatment plans available. Some practitioners may choose to use exposure therapy in which people are gradually confronted with medically related images, items, and scenarios in rising order of fear-provoking power. Forms of talk therapies (speaking with a trained therapist who can help them understand certain feelings and behaviors), including cognitive-behavioral therapy, may also help. Relaxation techniques are also often employed. While medications (e.g., benzodiazepines) can ease short-term anxiety, they are typically not recommended since they don’t address the root cause of the phobia. Like other anxiety-related disorders, long-term treatment using selective serotonin receptor inhibitors (SSRIs) may be beneficial for treatment. Iatrophobia can be more difficult to overcome compared to other phobias due to the nature of the fear preventing someone from seeking professional help, but over time, untreated iatrophobia can lead to health risks that may have been initially preventable. 

Individuals may also use self-coping techniques, such as exercise, meditation, and yoga. Specifically, aerobic exercise has been shown to be extremely beneficial for people suffering from anxiety disorders, including iatrophobia, by releasing endorphins and reducing stress.

What are the most important facts to know about iatrophobia?

Iatrophobia is the intense fear of doctors, medical care, or the medical care system. It is common in the population and is typically due to fear of pain or embarrassment from the visit or due to economic or social barriers to care. Individuals may experience nausea, palpitations, and excess sweating at the thought of visiting their doctor. Diagnosis may be difficult because anxiety and fear of the doctor can be commonplace; however, a qualified mental healthcare professional can assist in confirming a diagnosis of iatrophobia. Treatment is difficult due to the nature of the condition; however, it is possible to find a healthcare professional who is able to create the best environment and treatment plan for overcoming the phobia

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Related links

Cluster C personality disorders
Anxiety disorders: Clinical practice
Factitious disorder
Somatic symptom disorders: Clinical practice
Anxiety disorders, phobias and stress-related disorders: Pathology Review

Resources for research and reference

Dubose, J. (2020). How to overcome iatrophobia [the fear of doctors]. In Fearapy. Retrieved December 9, 2021, from https://fearapy.com/phobias/iatrophobia/

Fritscher, L. (2020). Understanding Iatrophobia or Fear of Doctors. In Verywell Mind. Retrieved December 9, 2021, from https://www.verywellmind.com/fear-of-doctors-2671863

Hollander, M. A. G., & Greene, M.G. (2019). A conceptual framework for understanding iatrophobia. Patient Education and Counseling, 102(11): 2091-2096. DOI: 10.1016/j.pec.2019.06.006 

Rosen, A. (1970). Iatrophobia Archives. In The Center for Treatment of Anxiety and Mood Disorders. Retrieved December 9, 2021, from https://centerforanxietydisorders.com/tag/iatrophobia/