Communicate and strengthen your relationship with your doctor

An excerpt from The Take-Charge Patient: How You Can Get The Best Medical Care (Lemon Grove Press) which will be released May 15, 2012. 

Your Relationship with Your Doctor

“A good relationship with your physician can lead to better medical care.”
-Zouhdi A. Hajjaj, MD, internal Medicine, Yarmouthport, MA

Your relationship with your doctor is an important one that can last for many years. It is a partnership. You and your doctor collaborate to maintain your good health and to treat any medical conditions, illnesses or injuries that occur. A good doctor-patient relationship includes mutual trust, respect and good communication.

Communication

Communication is one of the major components of a good relationship with your doctor. If you and your doctor don’t communicate well this increases the probability for medical errors, erodes trust, and can ultimately compromise your medical care.

Good communication means that you and your doctor work as a team.

Good communication includes:

  • listening to your doctor;
  • feeling listened to and understood;
  • focusing on specifics and not veering from your main concerns;
  • looking at one another in the eye;
  • mutual respect;
  • conversing with your doctor, engaging in a dialogue;
  • being honest;
  • speaking the same language;
  • asking questions; and more.

Speak in an Even Tone

Try not to get overly emotional. Doctors are cognitive thinkers and many have said that it’s easier for them to communicate with patients who are not overly emotional, who stay on track, keep things simple and organized and stay on point. Doctors are affected by your demeanor and if you are melodramatic, it can turn your doctor off. You don’t want your doctor to stop listening to you.

If you can use medical terminology, you might find that your doctor listens to you more.

Be Honest with Your Doctor

Resist lying or holding things back. Your doctor cannot do her job if you aren’t forthcoming. Share your symptoms, bad habits, side effects of medication and medications you have stopped taking and more. If she has recommended a test that you didn’t follow though on, tell her. Be upfront.

Gee, Doc, I’m Scared

If there is something about your health that is scaring you, bring it up to the doctor. It’s not easy being vulnerable in this way but keeping it to yourself makes it worse! If you’re scared, tell the doctor. You might just get some reassurance that you are not dying of a brain tumor.

For example, “Doctor, I’ve been worried I might have cancer. My sister was just diagnosed with breast cancer and I have not been feeling well.” Then list your symptoms, explain why you are afraid and enter into a conversation about your health.

I’m Embarrassed

Many doctors speculated that patients wait too long to come in for an office visit to discuss symptoms they’ve been experiencing because they are embarrassed.

This is pretty understandable and I’ve felt that way myself but waiting until your symptoms have progressed doesn’t help you. We all know that, of course, even though some things are really hard to talk about.

If you’re embarrassed about a medical condition or about symptoms you’re having, know that many of us feel that way. Pick a doctor you feel safe with and get in for an office visit to discuss the problem. If you choose the doctor you are most comfortable with, you might find that it’s easier to pick up the phone to make that appointment.

I’m Worried about Cost

If you have financial concerns that affect the medical treatment your doctor prescribes for you, talk to her about it. There are usually less expensive alternatives. Many doctors have good options available to assist patients who are burdened by medical costs.

Communication is essential. Your doctor can’t do her job unless you provide the information she needs. It is your responsibility to speak up about any financial issues that might interfere with following through on the medical treatment your doctor recommends for you.

Ask Questions

Full understanding of what a doctor tells you is key to good communication. This includes asking questions if you are confused.

Doctors can speak in complicated medical jargon. If you don’t understand what she is saying, ask her to explain it in a different way. You can say something like this, “I don’t understand why you want me to take this medication or undergo this treatment. Would you please go over it again?”

Be assertive and speak up. If you ask questions, most doctors will respect you for being invested in your care.

If you don’t understand why your doctor wants you to take a medication or have a test or procedure, ask for clarification.

Full understanding will ultimately help you commit to your doctor’s recommendations. This is part of getting the best medical care.

I Don’t Want to Bother the Doctor

Some people are worried about bothering the doctor with questions or concerns. This is understandable because doctors are so busy, but try to keep in mind that this is what they are there for—to serve you. They can’t do that unless you tell them what is going on with you.

You must be courageous and speak up, ask questions, be honest about your symptoms and suppress the fear of burdening the doctor. I am intimidated by certain doctors too. What I have learned from my own experience and from interviews with doctors and health psychologists is to approach the doctor in a level-headed and confident fashion.

Doctors are taught in medical school to relay information to patients with confidence. You can use the same method. How I handle it is by adopting a logical and confident manner. I act as if I do not doubt myself even though in some cases I wonder if I am reporting my symptoms or experiences correctly. I act as if I know what I’m talking about when I report what is happening with my body.

I walk into the doctor’s office with my health file in hand. I appear as if I am in control, even if I don’t feel it. That is why I dress nicely to meet doctors I’m intimidated by. I approach the visit as if I would a business meeting. This increases my confidence.

If all else fails, remember that you are paying your doctor to help you. Think about the bill you are going to receive at the end of the visit and muster the confidence to speak up.

Find a Doctor Who Speaks Your Language

Communication is essential for good medical care. If you do not speak the same language as your doctor and no one on her staff speaks your language, you can always bring in a family member to translate for you. However, many doctors said that family members are not translators and can misinterpret what the doctor is saying.

Stick to the Point

If you speak only about your top three most important medical concerns, it keeps you and your doctor on task. If you stray from the point with details from your personal life that do not pertain to your visit, you’ll be wasting your valuable time with the doctor. If you veer off into what your friends and family members told you to do, you will lose the focus and attention of the doctor.

However, it is important to let your doctor know if something important is affecting you—for example, if your parent or spouse just died and you’re having trouble dealing with the loss. Your doctor will want to factor that into the overall picture.

Even Take-Charge Patients Need to Listen

Even if you consider yourself to be a medically savvy, take-charge patient, several doctors suggested that you stay open to what they have to say about your medical condition, diagnosis and treatment options. In the end it is up to you to decide whether to act on the advice you are given, but you owe it to yourself and to the physician to take in her opinion and mull it over. Allow the doctor to educate you even if you decide against what she has to offer. In the end, the choice is yours.

A week after my mother died in 2001, my back went into spasm. I could barely move. I saw an orthopedist. After looking at my MRI, he immediately told me that I needed back surgery to correct two herniated discs. I listened to what this doctor had to say. I asked questions about his reasons for thinking I needed surgery and what surgery might do for me.

I also listened to my gut feeling, which was that I didn’t want or need back surgery. My mother had three of them and she ended up in a wheelchair. As I listened to what this doctor said, I paid attention to what I was feeling. My gut instinct was to get a second opinion.

I went for a second opinion with a respected back surgeon who was affiliated with a major medical institution. He looked at my MRI, took x-rays, gave me an exam and said emphatically that I did not need back surgery. He explained that my herniated discs and degenerative disc disease were not debilitating and that I could live comfortably if I exercised enough. He explained that I could expect about one back episode a year.

I did what the surgeon told me to do and acted on his direction because it made sense to me. I live relatively pain free with one or two minor episodes a year.

You Need to Be Listened To

Do you feel that your doctor listens to you? This is a very important aspect of the quality of communication with your doctor. If your doctor is not fully engaged with you, then something needs to change.

Martine Ehrenclou is a patient advocate and speaker.  She is the author of Critical Conditions: The Essential Hospital Guide to Get Your Loved One Out Alive and The Take-Charge Patient.

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