Have you had the experience of arriving at the doctor’s office and instantly forgetting all the questions you intended to ask? Have you ever felt intimidated by a health care provider’s credentials or attitude? What about the classic car engine problem – “it’s not making the noise now” – as applied to your body? If you have experienced any of these situations, there is good news! You can learn to communicate more effectively with your doctor, and here’s how.
First, you need an appropriate attitude. It is so easy to be overwhelmed or intimidated by a doctor’s credentials and apparent medical knowledge. In the past it often seemed that my brain went to sleep when I entered the doctor’s office! I found myself simply nodding to everything he or she said, barely comprehending and definitely not questioning. Later, at home, I would think of questions I wished I had asked as well as further information I wished I had shared. If you have had similar experiences, remember that although doctors do have extensive medical knowledge and experience, you are the expert on how your body feels. If your symptoms are not taken seriously, keep talking about them until they are. It helps to keep daily records of symptoms and severity, especially regarding chronic problems such as chest pain, joint pain, headaches, indigestion, or fatigue. If possible, a two-week record is ideal. Having this written record will go far in improving your confidence and providing information the doctor needs.
Second, do your homework. Unless you have difficulty with hypochondria, you should research your symptoms before your doctor visit. What are the possible causes? Is there one that fits closely with the variety of symptoms you have? A common saying in the medical community is “If you hear hoof beats, think of horses, not zebras.” Your doctor will consider the most common cause first because it is the most common. However, being aware of alternatives makes you a more informed consumer. If you have reason to believe you’ve got a zebra by the tail, say so.
Third, carry writing materials to the appointment. If you visit the doctor frequently due to a chronic illness, you may want to have a spiral notebook containing records of your symptoms as well as notes from appointments. Be sure to write any questions that occur to you between appointments in your notebook as well. It’s useful to have a notebook for each member of your family. When you talk to the doctor, physician’s assistant, or nurse practitioner, have your notebook handy.
Fourth, make sure that you inform your doctor of all symptoms and their frequency and severity. Some areas of the body are difficult or embarrassing to talk about, but remember that the doctor cannot help you without knowing what’s going on. Also, seemingly unrelated symptoms can help your doctor “connect the dots” and determine that you have a particular condition or syndrome.
Fifth, write down the doctor’s diagnosis and explanation of how he or she arrived at that diagnosis (if an explanation is not given, ask). Also write down lab results and request your own copy of labs when possible. If you are not given a handout with instructions, write the instructions down as well. Make sure that you have heard the doctor correctly by repeating back what you’ve written.
Finally, you may have thought of new questions by the time you return home. Don’t hesitate to call the office and ask your questions. You will probably talk with a nurse, who will relay information from the doctor. If your health care providers are reluctant to answer questions, you may want to consider switching providers.
Remember, each of us is ultimately responsible for the health of our own bodies. A recent commercial features an optometrist stating that a patient’s eyes are his responsibility. That's just not true! Health care providers are helpers, yes, but we ourselves are the directors. Take control of your body’s health, starting today!