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Talking With Your Doctor

How well do you and your doctor communicate? It’s an important question because a positive relationship with your doctor is essential in getting good health care. Many people, both doctors and patients, feel that the fast pace of health care visits today leaves little time for asking questions or really getting to know each other. It used to be customary that doctors took the lead during an office visit and patients followed. Now it’s important for every visit to be a two-way partnership with the patient clearly stating problems, worries, or desires; the doctor offering his or her expertise and experience; then patient and doctor together making decisions about treatment or next steps.

You and your doctor, or other health care provider, need to work as a team to keep you healthy and solve your medical problems. If something is worrying you, be sure to tell your doctor first thing during a visit. If you don’t understand what the doctor is saying, speak up. If you don’t agree with a recommendation or treatment your doctor suggests, ask questions right away. The responsibility for good communication rests with both you and your doctor. The following tips can help you build a great partnership, whether you are working with a new doctor or one you’ve known for years.

Prepare for the Visit


Write down all the issues you want to discuss. For example, do you have a symptom that is concerning you? Do you need a flu shot? If you have more than one concern, make a list and be sure to talk about the most important concern first. If your list is long or time runs out, you may need to have a return visit to adequately address all your issues; however, if you have a list and prioritize it, on this first visit you will have discussed your most urgent problems. If you have listed the other problems, the doctor may well be able to save you time by ordering tests immediately, so you both will be prepared for your next visit. Download a PDF copy of the Checklist for Communicating Clearly With Your Doctor to organize your questions.

Many people are reluctant to talk about problems that are embarrassing or uncomfortable, such as depression, sexual issues, or incontinence. But it pays to be brave! Don’t leave these issues for the end of the visit. You’ll be worried the whole time, and might not hear what the doctor is saying about other issues. Talk about the hardest things first, and then you can relax and get the most out of your visit.

Make an accurate list of all medications you take, both over-the-counter and prescription, for the doctor to review at each visit. Include herbal supplements and vitamins. Misunderstandings about the medications you are taking can lead to other health problems. Some doctors even recommend you bring all your medicine in a bag at each visit.

Focus as Clearly as Possible During the Visit


If you have only 15 minutes with the doctor, you will want to use them well. Being organized means that you will take only the amount of time necessary to state your concerns and desires. Be clear, listen well, and take notes. It is often helpful to have a friend or family member along on the visit, especially if you are worried or if you have difficulty hearing. Be sure to tell your companion ahead of time what major concerns you want to address, so he or she can help you focus on those concerns. Sometimes it’s helpful just to have another person hear the doctor’s explanations and recommendations. If your friend can write down what the doctor says, then you have a written record to help you remember exactly what was said so you have the best possible information for making decisions.

Be Sure You Can See and Hear as Well as Possible


If you use hearing aids or glasses, take them to the visit so that you can interact with your health care team as well as possible. If you have problems getting around—for example, if you use a cane, walker, or wheelchair—or have other special needs, be sure to get to the visit a bit early so that your needs can be accommodated and you won’t feel rushed.

Be Assertive and Ask Questions


Update your doctor on what has happened for you since your last visit, including new symptoms, new worries, the results of any new treatments, how you’ve been feeling in general. Answer the doctor’s questions as honestly as you can. Not telling the truth because you’re embarrassed, or feel you ought to be doing better, is not helpful. If you don’t understand what your doctor is recommending, ask questions until you are clear. It’s fine to ask why a particular medicine is being prescribed, whether there are cheaper or safer alternatives, whether a certain procedure or medicine is really necessary. You have a right to know exactly what your choices are and why you might choose one course of action over another. There are no dumb questions! If you don’t ask, your provider will just assume you understand.

Be honest about your feelings and desires. If time runs out and other patients are waiting, be willing to talk with the doctor later for further discussion and clarification, either in person or on the phone.

Be Prepared to Set Goals—and Meet Them!


Once you understand your options and your doctor’s recommendations, you’ll want to make a plan, set goals for yourself, and discuss with your doctor how to meet them. The more you know about your choices and options, the easier it will be to make informed choices, really understand what it will take to comply with chosen treatments, and do it successfully!

To Sum Up ...


Having a good relationship with your doctor is an important element in staying as healthy as possible. Doing your part to make that happen is a worthwhile investment of your time and energy. Be prepared. Be organized. Be focused. Ask questions. Make the best possible choices for yourself. And follow through. Your doctor will appreciate your effort, and you will get the most out of the doctor-patient relationship!

Online Resources

"Talking with Your Doctor: a Guide for Older People” can be found on the National Institute on Aging/National Institutes of Health Web site.

The AARP Web site includes a section called “How to Talk to Your Doctor,” as well as an online article for caregivers entitled “Caregiving: Communicating with Health Professionals.”

The American Academy of Family Physicians Web site features articles about communicating and working with your physician.

Contact Easterseals for more information about Easterseals services in your area.

Reprinted with permission from the book, Aging in Stride Plan Ahead, Stay Connected, Keep Moving. © 2004, Caresource.

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