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Helpful tips for communicating with your doctor

couple smiles and shakes hand with doctor in white coat

When it comes to health care, nothing is more important than good communication. Whether you’re undergoing a routine physical or are being treated for a serious illness or injury, a positive and open relationship with your doctor can help ensure you receive the best care possible at every office visit.

Dr. Michael Romain, an internist at The Austin Diagnostic Clinic, has some tips on effective ways to communicate that help both the patient and the physician.

Set goals

Why are you going to see the doctor? What do you hope that the doctor will do for you? “Answering these questions in advance can help you clearly communicate to your doctor what you expect from the visit,” says Dr. Romain. “Before your appointment, take a moment to actually write down, in one or two lines, why you’re going to the doctor.”

Be specific about symptoms

Stating “my chest hurts” is a start, but being specific about symptoms can help your doctor narrow down potential health problems and which tests or medications should be prescribed. “Explaining that ‘my chest hurts when I walk up the stairs,’ or ‘my chest hurts when I eat spicy foods,’ is a much clearer description of a problem,” says Dr. Romain. “Also, don’t forget to state how long you’ve had any symptoms, how long they last when you have them and whether any memorable event, such as a fall or car accident, might have triggered them.”

Be honest

Your doctors only know what you tell them. Leaving out details or not answering questions truthfully can hinder your health care, and, in some cases, have life-threatening consequences. “While it can be difficult to talk about some personal health concerns, a doctor who doesn’t fully understand a patient’s problem cannot effectively help a patient. Don’t let embarrassment stand in the way of the care you need.”

Provide information

Are you taking an unprescribed herbal medicine? Have you been on a new diet the last few months? “Don’t be afraid to volunteer information that your doctor or his or her nurse might not have asked,” advises Dr. Romain. “Sometimes a seemingly insignificant lifestyle or medication change can have serious effects on your health.”

Listen

Communication is a two-way street. Once you’ve provided information to the doctor, it’s time to listen up. “It’s perfectly acceptable to take notes while a doctor is talking,” says Dr. Romain. “Sometimes the amount of information a doctor provides can feel overwhelming. Jotting down key words or thoughts can also help you formulate any questions you might have while you’re still at the office.”

Ask questions

The more you understand about your health care, the more in control you’re going to feel. It’s critical that you understand what you’ve been diagnosed with, the treatment option your doctor is recommending and why, and what the possible outcomes are. “Never be afraid to ask a question,” says Dr. Romain. “If you ask a question and you don’t understand the answer, ask your doctor to repeat the answer in a different way.”

It’s especially important to ask questions about medications you’ve been prescribed, Dr. Romain adds. Ask your doctor about the potential side effects of the medication and when you should call the doctor if you experience any of them. Also, find out how long you need to take the medication and when you should expect results.

Summarize

“Before your visit with your physician is over, take a moment to repeat back what you’ve learned and what steps you’re supposed to take next,” says Dr. Romain. “For example, ‘I have high cholesterol and you want me to take this medication once a day. Then you want to see me back in six months.” This helps ensures that you and the doctor clearly understand each other and that there has been no miscommunication.

Whether you’ve been seeing your doctor for years, or are seeing a new doctor for the first time, effective communication can help build a solid, effective partnership that results in positive health outcomes.

There is no question that doctors are busy, says Dr. Romain, but a patient should always feel that all of their questions and concerns are being addressed.

“If efforts to communicate with your doctor don’t seem to be working, don’t be afraid to find a doctor that you feel more comfortable with,” he adds.