How to Talk So Your Doc Will Listen (and Listen So Your Doc Will Talk)
Sometimes a visit to the doctor can feel rushed and unhelpful. Here's how you can make the best use of your time with your physician.
Every time I nursed the baby I felt a searing pain in my breast. When my toddler, new baby and I were made to wait for almost an hour at the doctor’s before being seen, we were that much more miserable. The doctor asked me some questions, ordered me to lift up my shirt, took a quick look at my breast, scribbled off a prescription and hurried out of the room. He was with us for less than five minutes.
As I wrestled my daughters into their car seats and drove to the pharmacy, I felt angry and disappointed that the doctor and I did not communicate better. It was Friday afternoon and the doctor did not want to be there any more than we did. I came to his office hoping for kindness and a solution to the problem. Sure, the doctor did his job—to treat my illness (he rightly diagnosed a yeast infection but prescribed a medication that did not work)—yet he did it in a way that made me feel… worse.
But I was also to blame. Instead of going in at the first sign of a problem, I waited until the pain was unbearable and ended up being at the doctor’s at an inconvenient time. This wasn’t my regular doctor (who never rushed). I didn’t call a lactation consultant or someone from the La Leche League, who may have been better able to advise me about a breast infection (Nystatin did nothing. It was only after taking grapefruit seed extract and radically changing my diet to eliminate sugar and increase probiotic foods that the infection cleared up).
We can and should have good relationships with all of our healthcare providers, from obstetricians to pediatricians and beyond. A growing body of research shows that patients who have better interactions with their doctors and who are actively engaged in their own care have better health outcomes.
Here are two rules of thumb for good communication and a few other tips:
Rule #1: Choose your providers wisely.
Reality check: That’s sometimes impossible because of insurance and other constraints.
Rule # 2: Schedule the first appointment of the day: Or right after lunch. Your doctor will be less rushed if you’re the first one in the office.
Reality check: You might have to wait six months for that coveted slot.
How to talk so your doctor will listen:
- Answer questions accurately: Don’t go into detail about digestion if your doc asks about shoulder pain. She’s trying to pinpoint the problem to accurately diagnose it.
- Be honest about pain: Some people (like my husband) put on a bright face at the doctor’s and downplay how badly they feel. Others exaggerate in order to be taken seriously. But the more honest you are the better able your doctor will be to figure out what’s wrong.
- Write it down so you don’t forget: If your baby spiked a fever the night before, record the time and temperature and bring your notes. If you treated it with over-the-counter medicine, write that down, too. These notes will help you not get flustered if you’re being rushed.
- Don’t be afraid to say, “No, thank you”: There will be times when you and your doctor disagree, when you need a second opinion or want quality time with the CDC website or Dr. Google before deciding. If your doctor urges a procedure you don’t want, you can discuss the pros and cons. But if your mind’s already made up (maybe you’ve decided to skip the sneak peeks) simply say, “We don’t do that,” or, “No, thank you.”
- Get personal: It’s OK to ask the doctor, “What did you do when your baby was little?” or “If your mom had this disease, what would you recommend?” It’s also a good idea to get acquainted with your doc (ask about his kids, hometown, favorite sports). If he knows you personally he’s likely to care more about your health.
How to listen so your doctor will talk:
- Bring your partner or a friend: It’s best to have another set of ears listening in case your doctor talks too fast or says something you don’t understand.
- Write it down: The office will gladly print out information, but it also really helps to take notes when your doctor is talking.
- Acknowledge his point of view: If you aren’t going to follow the doctor’s advice, it’s still important your doctor knows you heard what she had to say. “I hear that you really think my son needs this antibiotic right away. I’ll fill the prescription now but I’m more comfortable waiting one more day.”
- Express appreciation: Doctors are working hard to make us well and keep us healthy. When we take the time to say, “Thank you for really paying attention and giving us your time today,” or to send a written note, we can be sure of being heard!
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