How to Really Communicate With Your Doctor | Reader's Digest

How to Really Communicate With Your Doctor

How to get more out of your doctor visit.

By Peggy Eastman from Reader's Digest | June 1998

Don’t Just Show Up

“My doctor doesn’t listen” is one of the most common complaints Americans have about their medical care, according to research from Boston’s Picker Institute.

Small wonder. Given that a typical appointment lasts about 15 minutes and doctors interrupt patients, on average, 23 seconds after they begin to explain what’s wrong, a medical visit is not exactly a relaxed chat over a cup of tea. But you can get more out of this key relationship if you plan ahead. Here are seven tips on talking to your doctor, based on current research and on the advice of doctors concerned with this aspect of medical care.

1. Prepare for your visit. Doctors rarely have time these days to behave as if they’ve stepped out of a Norman Rockwell painting. But many people walk into the examining room with nothing more concrete to offer than a vague complaint that they’re not feeling well. To make the best use of the appointment, write down all of your concerns beforehand in order, from most urgent to least, and take the list along with you.

In addition, jot down anything related to your health that has happened since your last visit. If this is the first time you’re seeing a new doctor, come prepared with notes on any disease that runs in your family or past treatments you’e had. Also plan to bring with you medical records and X rays from your former doctor. If the office won’t release them to you, have the records sent directly to your new doctor before your first visit.

When you’re clearly prepared it will send a signal that your doctor interprets as, “This is a serious person who respects my time.” And you’re more likely to get what you want from your visit.

2. Let your doctor know how much information you want. Some people like to know everything about their conditions, while others prefer a short, simple explanation. Some expect to share fully in every decision made about their problems, while others want their doctors to take the responsibility.

Doctors appreciate it when you tell them from the start how much and what kind of information you want. They can then tailor the visit to fit your needs.

Although the trend today is for people to be more involved in their health care than in the past, not all doctors will respect that preference. If you ask for a detailed explanation of your options, your doctor should offer just that–and not simply say, “I’ll sign you up for treatment next week.”

“You’re not going to make things work well with the wrong doctor,” says Mack Lipkin, M.D., Professor of Clinical Medicine and Director of Primary Care at New York University School of Medicine in New York City. If you feel your doctor isn’t listening, Lipkin advises that you say something along the lines of, “Doctor, this is important to me, and I’d like you to take that into account.” If your doctor still doesn’t hear you, it’s probably time to find someone else.

3. Be honest, even if some topics embarrass you. Some people find it difficult to talk to their doctors about what causes them the most distress, such as impotence or incontinence, or even problems that put them in danger, such as physical abuse. But your doctor has probably heard similar confidences many times before. Physicians are trained to help with issues you wouldn’t want to discuss with anyone else. For people who nonetheless find themselves unable to bring up a topic, one option is to write down the problem beforehand and hand it to the doctor, saying that you’re uncomfortable talking about it.

Also, be honest if your doctor gives you any medication that causes you problems. You may be taking a drug that successfully lowers your high blood pressure, but its side effects of more frequent urination or dizziness make it seem like more trouble than it’s worth. In such an instance, “You should certainly say to your doctor, ‘My life has been much worse since I started taking that drug’,” advises Steven Woolf, M.D., of Virginia Commonwealth University in Fairfax. “Otherwise, your doctor has no way of knowing the drug has a negative impact on your life. If you’re straightforward, your doctor may be able to substitute another drug or reduce the dosage.”