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

Speak Up

4. Ask about any new medications your doctor prescribes. When your doctor hands you the prescription, make sure you know the following: What’s the name of this medicine, and why is the doctor prescribing it? How, when, and for how long should you take this drug? Is there anything to avoid while you’re on it, such as certain foods, drinks, or other medications? Should you avoid driving while you’re taking these pills? What are the possible side effects, and which ones should you be concerned about? What should you do if they occur?

If you don’t like the idea of taking a particular medication your doctor prescribes, say so before you leave the office. Maybe your neighbor had poor results with that drug, or you won’t be where you can take the pills four times a day with a full glass of water, or you’re troubled by the possible side effects. Whatever your concerns, tell your doctor about them. By discussing the matter, you should be able to come up with an alternative that satisfies you both. As it is now, research reveals that about half the prescriptions written by doctors are either never filled or are taken incorrectly. So don’t waste both your time and your doctor’s by nodding agreeably and then tossing the prescription into the nearest wastebasket after you leave the office.

If you’ve started taking a new herbal supplement or vitamin since your last visit, bring the bottle with you. “I’d rather see the actual bottles and then note in the chart everything a person takes, including over-the-counter herbal supplements,” says Michael Fleming, M.D., Professor of Family Medicine at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Medicine. Sometimes the most innocent over-the-counter preparations can interact adversely with a prescription medication. Along the same lines, if you’re seeing a doctor for the first time, bring in all the medicines, herbal supplements, and vitamins that you use.

5. Bring along a pencil and paper so you can take notes. Better yet, ask if you can tape record your doctor’s explanations. Even if it’s a routine visit, a medical appointment can be stressful and not conducive to careful listening. If the visit turns out to yield an unexpected diagnosis, a tape recording of what your doctor said can help immensely.

Stephanie Bobrowsky, a health news reporter who lives in Columbia, MD, wished she’d taped a visit during which her doctor told her he detected a suspicious shadow on her mammogram and said he wanted her to have a biopsy to rule out breast cancer. Stunned, Bobrowsky asked if there wasn’t some other test she could have instead. She knows he explained his reasons for recommending a biopsy, but she can’t remember a word of it.

“I forgot what he said as soon as I walked out of the office,” Bobrowsky recalls. “All I could think of was breast cancer. Although I’m trained to gather facts, I was too emotionally upset to take it in.” Bobrowsky had the biopsy, which showed she did not have cancer. But she remembers wishing she could have turned on her tape recorder at home, when she was calmer, and played back the conversation.

6. If you have your own opinions about tests or treatments, tell your doctor. If you see your doctor about back pain, you may think that an X ray will be done of your back. If your doctor doesn’t order one, you’re likely to leave the office feeling frustrated and dissatisfied. But if you ask, “Why don’t you want to do an X ray? I thought that was standard with back pain,” your doctor and you can discuss the reasons. What your doctor cannot do is guess what’s on your mind if you don’t say anything.

Expressing your own ideas helps both you and your doctor avoid the outdated, authoritarian scenario in which a person is expected to passively “comply with” or “adhere to” doctor’s orders. These times make it imperative to look at the doctor-patient relationship as a collaboration rather than a reporting relationship between a subordinate and superior.

7. Sum up the visit in your own words. Before leaving the office, say, “So today you recommended that I…” and recap your understanding of what your doctor told you. Then, if there’s any confusion about your condition, treatment, or medication, your doctor can clear it up on the spot.

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