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5 Communication Tips That Can Help You Better Speak With Your Doctor

Regular doctor’s visits are a crucial part of maintaining your health, but scheduling a doctor’s visit can be anxiety-inducing. First, you have to coordinate your appointment so it aligns with your work schedule, and on top of that, you have to worry about how to convey whatever you’re feeling — whether physically or mentally to your physician. Speaking from experience as someone not in the medical field, it can be difficult to provide the language for what symptoms I may be feeling when I go to the doctor. And it turns out, this is a completely natural reaction for patients according to Dr. Danielle Ofri, MD, Ph.D., author of What Patients Say, What Doctors Hear and a primary care doctor at Bellevue Hospital and a Clinical Professor of Medicine at NYU. 

“The doctor’s office can be a very intimidating place,” she says. “At baseline, there is a power differential and most patients don’t have the medical expertise to feel like equals. But on top of that, most people are there because something is wrong — they’re sick, they’re in pain, and they’re worried about a threat to their health. They may have waited weeks or months for this visit. So it’s not the most ideal circumstance for communication.” And this can be especially true for women or people of color. Fortunately, there are steps in place patients can take to help lessen the communication barrier when they speak to their physician. Below, see what Dr. Ofri had to say about how patients can better communicate with their doctors so both parties can get the most out of the visit.

Set goals 

Many doctor’s visits last only 15-20 minutes, so it’s important to prioritize your concerns by setting an agenda, according to an article from Johns Hopkins Medicine. To help facilitate this, create a list of topics that you want to address before the visit and introduce them at the start. It doesn’t need to be anything too in-depth, but it helps to have a starting point before going in. Dr. Ofri also suggests offering a gentle reminder toward the end, if those topics haven’t been addressed or if there are new items that you’d like to discuss, it never hurts to schedule a follow-up appointment.

Remember, it’s your visit 

Asking questions is crucial to communicating with your doctor, but as Dr. Ofri says, “Remember that this is your visit. It is absolutely within your rights to let your doctor know what you want to accomplish during the visit.” In the same vein, if you feel like you aren’t getting what you need from him or her, you are also within your rights to switch to a new provider or share your concerns with another party. “If you feel comfortable, let the doctor or nurse know your concerns. If you are not, you can speak to the practice manager or the patient advocate’s office,” says Dr. Ofri.

Be realistic 

“You always hear the advice to ‘make a list of questions.”‘ says Dr. Ofri. And while that may be true, patients will want to be realistic about what can be addressed in one session. “I advise patients to do this judiciously, otherwise some will come with 40 questions that will not be able to be answered with any depth. It’s better to come up with two to three priorities that you want to address at the visit and let the doctor know that. And be prepared that the doctor may likely add in a priority or two that you might not have been aware of,” Dr. Ofri adds.

Know your medical history 

Dr. Ofri suggests gathering any previous medical records, but again, being judicious. “Don’t drop off a hundred pages of records and expect your doctor to spend hours on the weekend reading them. You can summarize your medical history, and bring in the handful of records that are directly relevant to the issue as your doctor can always request further records as needed,” she says. “The vast majority of illnesses are diagnosed by medical history. Blood tests and other diagnostic tests are helpful, but they are secondary to the history. So, it’s crucial that patients are able to communicate what’s on their minds and that doctors be astute listeners and also ask the right questions,” she adds.

Be honest 

Similar to providing medical history, it’s important to share things about your lifestyle, social obligations, and relationships at home and at work. While it’s understandable that patients can feel embarrassed or fearful of judgment, doctors have heard and seen it all and everything is confidential. And by providing detailed information, you put your doctor in a better position to get the full picture of your overall well-being and the factors that might be affecting your health.

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