How you communicate with your doctor impacts your health. It can even make a difference between life and death. But it can be hard. Your doctor may use medical terms you can’t understand. And with time-squeezed appointments, doctors often rush and/or interrupt patients. Moreover, 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”. Use our 10 tips to communicate better with doctors to help you get the best care and outcome possible.
Patients and doctors can 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.
Interestingly, a 2021 AHIMA Foundation survey found that many Americans don’t have a clear picture of their health. For instance, 76% of respondents stated they don’t leave their doctor’s office on a positive note, for a variety of reasons, including disappointment in the level of Q&A they have with their doctor, confusion about their health, and the need to do more research to better understand their situation.
Additionally, 24% of survey respondents reported they sometimes leave appointments without getting clear answers to their questions. Alarmingly, 17% stated they sometimes didn’t have the chance to ask any questions at all.
Furthermore, family caregivers struggle more than patients. For instance, 29% of family caregivers and 20% of patients stated they feel they do not get clear answers to their questions. And 22% of family caregivers reported they sometimes don’t have the chance to ask questions, compared to 13% of patients.
Interestingly, the survey showed that younger people were more likely to leave appointments without getting clear answers to their questions. And younger people were more likely to feel more confused after a doctor’s appointment, as compared to before an appointment.
Certainly, whether you’re a patient or family caregiver, leaving appointments without your questions answered and health issues addressed is problematic.
Why is it important to communicate effectively with your doctor?
A few excellent reasons!
Speaking up improves patient safety.
Poor communication between doctors and patients can increase the risk of medical errors. It can be very intimidating to speak up when something doesn’t seem right, or you think your doctor is not listening to you. However, your health, and maybe even your life, might depend on your doctor’s willingness and ability to hear your voice.
Recent research analyzed previous studies to determine the impact of communication on patient safety. The authors found that “speaking up is one of the critical behaviors of patient safety.” It’s important to note that all patients, families, and medical professionals should speak up when they something doesn’t seem right.
Good communication improves outcomes.
Researchers found that patients who effectively communicate with their doctors make more appropriate medical decisions and have better health outcomes.
The barriers to good communication between doctors and patients.
Many patients can’t understand medical information.
When 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 researchers found that only 12% of US adults had “proficient” health literacy. 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.
Additionally, research shows that receiving bad news, such as a cancer diagnosis, can make it harder to process information and form memories.
Some patients are reluctant to share sensitive information.
To receive the best care and outcome possible, it’s important for your doctor to fully understand all your health-related issues. Yet according to a 2021 AHIMA Foundation survey of Americans, 22% reported they do not feel comfortable asking their doctor certain health questions.
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 don’t always make sure their patients understand the information discussed.
Since 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.
Rushed appointments can lead to inadequate patient-doctor communication.
To determine a proper diagnosis and treatment options, doctors must listen carefully to their patients. Even though patients’ stories provide important information, many doctors find it hard to listen intently. Instead, rushed appointments and doctor interruptions negatively impact doctor-patient communications.
Alarmingly, researchers found that doctors interrupt 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 Doctors Interrupting Patients Can Impact Our Health.
Additionally, most doctors have to squeeze everything into time-limited appointments, which can lead doctors to rush through appointments.
Electronic Health Records don’t help.
Most 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.
How can doctors communicate better with their patients?
There 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 you do to communicate better with doctors?
Effective communication is an important part of being an active, engaged member of your medical team. Fortunately, by trying to communicate better with your doctors, you can help yourself, or a loved one, get the best healthcare and outcome possible.
For all patients:
- Make sure you know how to access your online medical records, which you should use to keep track of test results, diagnoses, treatment plans, and medications. Additionally, ask your doctor how to best reach him/her during and after office hours.
- Prepare for appointments ahead of time by writing down the “story” of your symptoms and concerns, as well as any questions. Be as detailed as possible. For instance, if reporting pain, be specific about the severity and duration of the pain, and what factors you think may have contributed to your pain.
- Make sure your doctor listens to your story. If your doctor interrupts you, continue where you left off – don’t get sidetracked. Don’t leave out details because you are tired of repeatedly telling the same story. And don’t wait until the appointment is almost over to bring up your most important concerns or questions.
- 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. Participate in the decision-making process. It’s worth noting that one study found that 25% of patients preferred to take a passive role in decision-making. Don’t let that be you.
- Take careful, detailed notes during (not after) every appointment. Share the information in your notes will all members of your medical team. And consider recording appointments, but get permission first. For more information, read Why Take Detailed Notes at Doctor Appointments? and Should You Record Medical Appointments?
- Whenever possible, get printed information from your doctor.
- To make sure you understood your doctor correctly, repeat back what you heard.
- If something doesn’t seem right, speak up!
For hospitalized patients:
- 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.)
- Whenever possible, participate in hospital daily rounds when your medical team discusses your care, or that of a loved one. For more information, read: The Benefits of Participating in Hospital Rounds.