Can We Talk? Tips for Better Communication with Your Doctor

Good communication with your doctor is key to getting good medical care. Research has shown time and again that it leads to higher patient satisfaction and better health outcomes.

Why does communication matter so much? Because while lab tests and other diagnostic tools are important, much of the information a doctor uses to make a diagnosis and develop a treatment plan is based on what the patient shares with him or her. Plus, many patients can't (or won't) follow a plan they don't understand or agree with.

So, what steps can you take to communicate more effectively with your doctor? Here are a few tips for making the most of your visit.

Be Prepared

Your doctor may have a 15- to 20-minute time slot in which to see you, so it's important and helpful to plan for what you want to accomplish. Make a list of your concerns and prioritize them. If the list is very long or your condition is complex, you might want to address a few of the most important items during the first visit and schedule a follow-up appointment, either in person or via a video visit, to continue the conversation.

Know Your Medical History

Part of being prepared is having a good understanding of your own medical history. Doctors consider it key to making an accurate diagnosis, as much of a doctor's decision-making is based on what you tell them about your symptoms and your history. Details you provide usually factor more heavily than a physical exam, laboratory tests, and imaging combined. Integrated health systems, such as Kaiser Permanente, have long ensured that your physician will have your full medical history at their fingertips through an electronic health records system – though many community health providers have also started using sophisticated medical record systems.

Be ready to answer questions your doctor is likely to ask, especially if this is your first visit, including:

  • What ongoing medical problems do you have? When did they start and have you had them before? What makes them better or worse and how do they affect your daily life?
  • What have you done or are you doing now to address them? What has worked? What hasn't?
  • What past significant medical issues have you had, including hospitalizations and surgeries?
  • What medications are you taking? Bring a list or bring your medications along, especially if you have are a lot of them. In addition to your prescription medications, bring (or mention) any over-the-counter drugs, supplements, or herbal medicines you are using.
  • What is your family history? When doctors ask about this, they're talking about first-degree relatives, which includes parents, children, and siblings, and whether they've had serious chronic conditions like cancer, diabetes, kidney, and/or heart disease. Other relatives can be relevant if something serious shows up a lot in your family, such as multiple instances of breast cancer.

Be Honest

One of the biggest obstacles doctors face in developing a diagnosis and an effective treatment plan is patients not telling them everything. So don't hold back about overeating or under-exercising, and if you're worried about smoking or drinking too much or any kind of substance use, please don't be ashamed to say so. Many people have similar issues and it is your doctor's job to listen and help, not to judge.

Many patients are also afraid to talk to their doctors about alternative therapies they are using, everything from supplements to acupuncture to, perhaps, a special diet. This, too, is vital information, since some alternative therapies can impact the way medications work, making them less effective or even dangerous. If your doctor seems dismissive or judgmental about an alternative therapy you've found to be helpful, be assertive and speak up.

And don't be afraid to share your fears, even if you are afraid they are silly or will make you seem like a hypochondriac. If you are having headaches and your secret fear is that you have a brain tumor, for instance, your doctor can either reassure you by explaining why it's unlikely, or go over some steps she can take to rule it out. Many people go to the doctor because they are afraid something is wrong, so it's a waste of a visit to leave without having your fears addressed.

Be Sure You Understand

Doctors are human. They sometimes feel rushed or under the weather, and some are better at communicating than others. Sometimes they lapse into medical jargon, or fail to explain things clearly. Sometimes patients are just too nervous or upset to listen. If you don't understand a phrase or concept, don't be afraid to say so. Keep asking questions until you understand.

It can help to take notes or bring someone with you to help you remember what the doctor told you. And you can also ask for a written diagnosis and instructions to take with you when you leave. Also, ask the office about online access to your medical record and learn how to use it. It's an effective way to quickly find everything from test results to the time of your next appointment.

If you do think of follow-up questions as you're walking out the door, or even when you get home, you should follow up with an email to your physician or a phone, video or office visit.

To learn more about establishing strong communication with your doctor, visit the website of the National Institutes of Health.

Mid-Atlantic Permanente Medical Group, P.C. (Permanente) is our network of over 1,500 physicians who practice in our medical centers located in Maryland, the District of Columbia, and Virginia.

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