10 Tips to Communicate Better with Doctors

photo doctor at desk speaking the patientHow you communicate with your doctor impacts your health. It can even make a difference between life and death. Research has found that patients who effectively communicate with their doctors make more appropriate medical decisions and have better health outcomes. Use these 10 tips to communicate better with doctors to help you get the best care and outcome possible.

Patients and doctors struggle to communicate effectively.

Doctor-patient communication, just like any other communication, relies on both parties speaking clearly, listening closely, and understanding the words and concepts of the discussion. It’s critical that patients, and family caregivers, understand the information doctors provide. It’s equally critical that doctors and other medical professionals provide understandable information and meaningfully listen to patients and families.

Unfortunately, both groups often fall short when it comes to effective communication. And that can negatively impact patient health.

Let’s face it. Having a conversation with your doctor is often hard. Your doctor may use medical terms you can’t understand. And with time-squeezed appointments, doctors often rush and/or interrupt patients. On top of all this, when you’re dealing with a serious health condition, you feel stressed and overwhelmed. And you may suffer from what I call “Charlie Brown syndrome”, when all you hear the doctor say is “whaa, whaa, whaa”.

Many patients can’t understand medical information.

image if people holding question marksWhen patients can’t understand and properly use medical information it can negatively affect their health and increase health costs. If you can’t understand the information, it’s harder to follow instructions and/or make appropriate health decisions. But understanding medical information is easier said than done. You must understand complex written and spoken information, something many patients and families struggle with. Some experts call this problem a hidden epidemic.

As you read this post, you might think to yourself “I can understand my doctors. This doesn’t apply to me”. But you might be giving yourself more credit than you deserve. In fact, researchers found that nearly 90% of adults have difficulty understanding and using the everyday health information that is routinely available in healthcare facilities and other sources. Odds are, this includes you! Please take this to heart – you might not understand medical information as well as you think you do.

Patients forget or misremember medical information.

Even if you understand medical information, there’s a good chance you will forget, or incorrectly remember what you heard. In fact, most of us struggle with this. Research shows that:

  • 40%-80% of medical information is forgotten immediately.
  • The more you hear, the lower the proportion remembered.
  • Almost 1/2 of what you do remember is remembered incorrectly.

Doctors don’t always provide information that is easy to understand.

Doctors should, but don’t always, provide patients with easy-to-understand medical information. Because understanding medical information is so hard, doctors must use language that patients can understand.

Doctors should make sure their patients understand the information discussed.

photo doctor explaining xray to patientSince so many patients struggle to understand medical information, doctors (and other medical professionals) should confirm patients’ understanding by asking them to repeat back key information, a process referred to as “patient teach-back”. In addition to helping doctors learn how much their patients understand, this process can help patients remember the information and increase the chances of patients following doctors’ orders.

Doctors frequently interrupt patients, impeding good communication.

To determine a proper diagnosis and appropriate treatment options, doctors must listen carefully to their patients. Even though patients’ stories provide important information, many doctors find it hard to listen intently. In fact, researchers found that doctors are interrupting patients just 12 seconds into their opening statements describing their symptoms and issues – both in emergency departments and in primary care offices.

For more information on this important topic, read my blog post: Doctors Interrupting Patients Can Impact Our Health.

The use of Electronic Health Records isn’t helping.

doctor using computer at deskMost doctors use Electronic Health Records (EHRs), which force them to spend a lot of time during each appointment entering information and reading the screens. With their focus on the computer, the patient-doctor communication can suffer. Research shows that doctors feel that EHRs negatively impact their connections with their patients. Additionally, hospital-based doctors worry that EHRs diminish time spent with patients, and office-based doctors report that EHRs reduce the quality of their patient interactions.

For more information on EHRs, read these posts:

Doctors and patients might not be on the same page. 

What if the patient and doctor are not in sync with what is being discussed? One study found that patients and doctors frequently differed on their view of the cause, meaning, treatment and control of their medical conditions. So, the doctor and patient are hearing the same information but interpreting it differently. Classic miscommunication!

But it doesn’t have to be this way. The researchers found when patients asked frequent questions, expressed concerns and stated their own opinions, it was easier for doctors to understand their patients’ views. Pretty easy and obvious fix. But you have to be involved to make it happen.

What can doctors do to improve communication with their patients?

photo doctor talking to patientThere are many steps doctors can take to improve doctor-patient communication. Doctors (and other medical professionals) should:

  • Use medical terms that patients can understand. If doctors must use complicated terms, they should speak slowly and clearly explain the information.
  • Doctors should encourage patients to participate in the conversation. They should carefully listen to the patient’s story, questions and concerns. Without interrupting!
  • Doctors should ask patients to repeat back a summary of important information discussed. Doctors should not assume that patients correctly understood the information covered.
  • Electronic Health Records can make it hard for doctors to keep their eyes, and attention, on patients. Doctors should make a concerted effort to maintain as much eye contact with patients as possible.
  • Doctors should provide written materials that are easy to understand, with no medical jargon. Additionally, handouts should include helpful diagrams and pictures as needed.

Does your doctor make a concerted effort to be a good communicator? If not, it might be time to think about switching doctors. Good communication is a key part of good care. For more information on when to consider looking for a new doctor, read my 3-part series: When Is It Time To Change Doctors? Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

What can patients and families do to improve communication?

Fortunately, by making an effort to be a good communicator you can help yourself get the best healthcare and outcome possible. I recommend you:

  1. Be an active, engaged member of your medical team! Don’t sit back and assume someone is taking care of your healthcare. Participate in the decision making process. It’s worth noting that one study found that 36% of patients preferred to take a passive role in decision making.  Don’t be that person.
  2. Prepare for appointments ahead of time by writing down your “story” and your questions.
  3. Make sure your doctor listens to your story. If your doctor interrupts you, continue where you left off – don’t get sidetracked. And don’t leave out details because you are tired of repeatedly telling the same story.
  4. Ask as many questions as you need to understand your diagnosis, treatment options and care instructions. If you don’t understand your doctor, ask him/her to repeat the information.
  5. Take careful, detailed notes during (not after) every appointment. Share the information in your notes will all members of your medical team.
  6. Whenever possible, get printed information from your doctor.
  7. In order to make sure you understood your doctor correctly, repeat back what you heard.
  8. If something doesn’t seem right, speak up!

For hospitalized patients:

  1. Make sure you know who is overseeing your, or a loved one’s, care. (A study found that only 32% of hospitalized patients could name at least one doctor responsible for their care.)
  2. Whenever possible, participate in hospital daily rounds when your medical team discusses your care, or that of a loved one. Read my blog post for more information: The Benefits of Participating in Hospital Rounds.


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