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First, Do No Harm: Marital Status At the Doctor’s December 14, 2010

Posted by Onely in As If!, Everyday Happenings, Food for Thought.

I walk up to the grandmotherly office manager and explain that I have a 9:30 new patient appointment.  Betty finds my file on the computer and makes last-minute adjustments before checking me in. She looks up and asks,

“Are you married or single?”

Nine-thirty in the morning is not my best time of the day. I stare at Betty through raggedy, unwashed bangs. I’m here to see a specialist for a (knock wood) non-fatal chronic illness that is nonetheless kicking my ass, and so I’m nervous and cranky, and I really want to just answer her question and go see the doctor. But because I write a blog deconstructing single stereotypes and marriage mythology, I feel obligated to engage Betty further on this topic.

Such is my dedication to you, dear Copious Readers.

“Can I ask why you ask if I’m married or single?” I say. I’m nice. I smile.

“Oh, everyone in the medical field asks that,” Betty says. She is nice. She smiles too.

“Oh yes, I know.” I say. (It’s true–I’ve been asked this question at several other doctor’s offices.) “I was just wondering why.”

“Well–I actually don’t know.” She looks surprised, perhaps at my question, or perhaps at her own ignorance.

“I was just curious,” I say. “It’s ok.” She is kind, after all, and it’s not even 10 a.m., far too early for forcing people to rethink entrenched paradigms such as the relevance of marital status. Or is it?

She wants to reassure me, also. “It’s just something we like to know about you.”

All my instincts tell me not to antagonize the office manager at my first appointment. If this doctor is the one who can help me, then I will need Betty on my side too. But I can’t help asking again, “But why?”

Slight irritation in her voice. “It’s just part of your demographic.”

Yes, I think, a small part. My demographic comprises my age, income, sex, race, socioeconomic status, education, cultural background, religion, and other traits, including, yes, my marital status. So why aren’t doctors’ offices asking me, “Are you Buddhist or Pagan?” or “Did you go to college?”

Answer: They don’t ask those questions because those questions are irrelevant and none of their business. Yet no one questions whether marital status is relevant and is their business. This is just another sign of the arbitrary worship attached to marriage, a privileging that would never fly if applied to any other element of a demographic. Can you imagine over a thousand federal laws based on religious status, the way over a thousand laws are based on marital status (and largely discriminate against singles)?

I hate singlism, but I hate mornings more. I stare at Betty, the stare of the exhausted, the confused, the inarticulate.

Betty gives me a concerned look and says,

It doesn’t mean a whole lot one way or the other.

OH SNAP. Copious Readers, what would you have said here? Remember, you’re in a position of unpower because you can’t piss off the intermediary between you and the doctor who may be able to stop the stabbing pains.

“Single,” I sigh.

Betty thinks my face is red and my lips clenched because I’m agitated about my appointment.  “I know you’re probably scared because you’re going to a specialist,” she says. That’s not untrue, and she means well, so I decide to let her live.

“It’ll be ok,” she says,  “Just have a seat.” So I do.


Photo credit: Cindy Woods


1. Of Singlism and Speculums « Onely: Single and Happy - December 26, 2011

[…] weren’t enough fun already, there I was filling out the new-patient paperwork and being asked yet again to write in my marital […]

2. Christy - February 25, 2013

I’ve NEVER had a doctor ask me any demographic questions. I think I had to fill out on a form if I were married or not – but I thought it was due to the fact they wanted to know who to contact in case of an emergency or to know to whom they could release information. Today I had a specialist ask me a whole bunch of stuff – including my race. That DID NOT seem normal. Never had it happen over the phone like that. This is why I googled the reasons WHY they might do it. It annoyed and kind of scared me. I asked why, but the receptionist sounded mildly peeved and did not really have an answer.

3. Marina - May 17, 2013

I did ask a medical doctor whether he is married or not. He never answer my question. What’s wrong with it?

4. Eddie - August 5, 2014

I just stumbled across this googleing. My drs office just asked for religion, job status, and location. I didnt even think twice about the marriage question.

5. Jane - July 2, 2015

The irrelevant information gathering will only get worse. Your doctors are actually paid by the federal government to collect information and do their bidding. It’s called “Meaningful Use”, Google it and learn. If the doctor complies they get money from the government. Each year the feds add more requirements to give more money. I believe eventually the government will tell all doctors what they can and can’t say as well as what they can and can’t do. Note that all these electronic medical records use a common interchange called HL7, or Health Level 7. This allows all the different electronic medical softwares worldwide to exchange your “private” information without mixing it up. You can find a list of all the HL7 fields online. It may shock you that some of the fields are… Place of Worship, Driver’s License Number, Ethnic Group, Birth Place, Birth Order, Mother’s Maiden Name, Household Income, Your Income, and much more unnecessary information not needed to treat you. And a final note… Right now the government has prevented the assigning of a national patient id due to privacy concerns but this will never last. Big companies and big government that want to identify and use your data will eventually get what they want. This patient ID system is also a worldwide standard in that everyone on the planet will eventually get a unique number. Anyone ever hear the term “New World Order”? Be careful what you tell your doctor.

Jane - February 22, 2018

If only it were the case that what you write is paranoiac.

Jeff - February 26, 2020

As a physician, I want you to understand the whole story behind ‘Meaningful Use’. The Meaningful Use initiative was created by the Federal Government. The incentive that you speak of is based on a ‘zero balance’. This means that every physician (and now physical therapists and Mid-Level Practitioners) that doesn’t report minimum requirements to the Federal Government will get penalized, and those that exceed will get ‘incentives’. Yes, the Government says that they will offer incentives to physicians that exceed Government reporting expectations. However, the incentives are directly proportional to the number of physicians that do not meet minimum reporting requirements. This means that physicians who do not meet minimum reporting requirements will get penalized and physicians that exceed minimum reporting requirements should get additional reimbursement. The Federal power play is with the ‘zero balance’ clause. This means that physicians who exceed minimum requirements will get a share of the penalties that were collected from physicians that did not meet these requirements. Currently, the maximum penalty is 7% of Medicare reimbursements. If all physicians exceed the Federal Government’s minimum reporting requirements, then there is no incentive, because there is no penalty money to redistribute. We do not get paid by the Government – we are required to report healthcare data under the penalty of reducing our reimbursement. I fully agree with you that the Federal Government is taking control of healthcare by requiring reporting of medical information. I started practice 16 years ago, and have consistently seen a 4% DECREASE per year in reimbursement from insurance every year. This includes Medicare and Commercial Insurance. Does any other profession or trade see a decrease in pay year over year? The ‘New World Order’ starts at the Federal Level, and physicians are not complicit.

6. Suse - January 24, 2017

Girl, as a three-time cancer patient that has had my information released to my detriment, among other things, this is MY fight. Why do you need to know whether I am married? You DO NOT need my social security number (that is a holdover when that was the way your insurance was looked up. And, my college degree did NOT keep me from getting cancer — what does it have to do with my treatment? I have had one office say, we use you SS number in case there are two with the same name/birthday. I said, use my address — I know there is only one of me there. I have a pain doctor ask, “Have you ever not gotten along with a doctor?” Uhhh, I guess this is in case you attack him if he denies you narcotics. But, why, yes I have. But, I am afraid to say. I had another doctor give me an “Oh no!” look when I said, “Oh, I didn’t like her.” He said, “Oh, you don’t want THAT to get out!”

WTF? I have heard it all and been through most. I would love to just say, “No, I will not be telling you that.” But, instead, I spend my time putting fake numbers in appropriate spaces. Nobody has EVER asked me how lucky (or unlucky) I am to have my social security number be 123-45-6789 or 000-00-0000. :/

7. Jane - February 22, 2018

I consider myself single. I was married to a man, (one must specify this now), prior to becoming pregnant. That ‘marriage’ ended shortly. There was nothing ‘married’ about it, save for the paperwork. Later in life, I married again, this time, for 5 years. That was 30 years ago, and I haven’t been with anyone since.

A few months ago, I went to a gynecology office. They have my full history, even indicating that I had been married – at a time when you couldn’t say you were married if you were same sex. Then there were records of the birth control devices I’d used over the years. I’m in the exam room, and I was asked if I was lesbian, or bisexual. Controlling the urge to throw something, I asked why I was asked this. “We have to ask these questions now.” I should have told them I was transsexual just to see how they would handle it. I filed complaints. To no avail, of course. What does gender preference have to do with most anything, once factors like STDs have been accounted for. Ultimately, I caved, almost shouting, “I’m heterosexual.” In my book, the travesty is that there is not a women’s health specialty. No babies. Women’s health.

Why did I. I’m elderly. I’m often perceived as … odd. I’m poor. It wasn’t worth the risk of giving them something else to count against me, although the thought occurred to me that given that having ‘non-standard’ sexual preferences, might give me points for belong to currently popular themes.

Today, at a new doctor’s office, I had to force my hand to complete checking off the ‘divorced’ category. Does this mean that someone would figure I collect alimony? (Which was never the case – nor even child support). That if I’m single, there is something “wrong” with me, right from the very top of the medical history page. I’ve felt the need to indicate that I was married prior to becoming pregnant, and, with good reasons. But this was the last time. in the future, I will leave that section blank.

One comment about those “grandmotherly” types working front office, as someone referenced here? They can stick their smiles along with all the photos of their grandchildren, and great grandchildren…

8. Melissa A Milburn - August 27, 2020

I hate this and it extends past single or married in most instances it asks: Single, Married, Divorced, or Widowed.

I gave you my emergency contact…I would actually be less bothered if it was just between single and married, not happy, but less irritated.

I know some states allow liability of payment to be transferred to a spouse and if you are married, the spouse has the right to make medical decisions if you are incapable. But…why do you need to know if I am single due to divorce, etc?

Onely - August 30, 2020

That’s a good point about payment liabilities….

9. Suse London - August 27, 2020

I don’t like them making and keeping a copy if my driver’s license. Check it to make sure my insurance matches. Give it back. Why do they need that on file?? Again, probably help coming after you for a check (I haven’t written one in 7 years), or for collection. It pisses me off.

Onely - August 30, 2020

Honestly I hadn’t thought about this, but now that you’ve planted it in my head it’s going to bother me = ) = )

10. Katrina Van Horne - January 27, 2021

I’m so with you on this! Too personal, irrelevant, antiquated, uncomfortable, and dangerous invasion of privacy. We shouldn’t be intimidated by these “professional’s” we PAY. Where would THEY be without US?!

Onely - January 30, 2021

Thanks Katrina. Exactly, we forget that without patients, those fancy embossed degrees on their wall mean nothing… lol

11. mydanni1 - August 9, 2021

That shit pisses me off! I literally just got triggered by this questions in a pre screening call for my appointment in the morning. I just lied and said I’m separated. I hate this need to separate people by if they’re married or not. It seems like asking someone’s religion would be more appropriate in a medical office, considering some do not believe in vaccines or blood transfusions. But they need to know whether or not I have a spouse is something that the medical community has latched on for years and keeps asking for no logical reason – is ridiculous. I think I’m gonna just start saying, “I choose not to answer that question because it’s none of your business.” They have your emergency contact info…enough said!

12. Online Forms: When Gender is Flexible, but Relationship Status Isn’t | Onely.Org - September 26, 2021

[…] I’ve previously fumed about here and here, doctors’ offices routinely force people to reveal if they are partnered or not. If […]

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