Getting The Most From Your Doctor

Clear communication between you, your loved one, and his or her doctor is an essential part of making sure that your loved one receives the best possible care.

Effective communication is one of the most important parts of getting quality health care. Unfortunately, this isn’t always easy. It takes time and effort from you, your loved one, and his or her doctor.

In the past, doctors typically took the lead and patients followed. Today, a good patient-doctor relationship is more of a partnership, with both patient and doctor working together to solve medical problems and maintain good health. This means that you or your loved one should ask questions if the doctor’s explanations or instructions are unclear, bring up problems even if the doctor doesn’t ask, and let the doctor know when a treatment isn’t working. If both you and your loved one take an active role in his or her care, you significantly decrease the chances of medical error and increase the odds that your loved one will receive the proper care and treatment.

Prepare For Visits

Before you and your loved one visit the doctor’s office, take some time together to prepare. This increases your loved one’s chances of leaving the appointment well informed and satisfied with the care received.

If your loved one is visiting the doctor because he or she isn’t feeling well, write down everything that both of you can remember about your loved one’s symptoms, including what the symptoms are, how long they’ve lasted, and whether or not anyone else in the family has ever experienced similar symptoms. The more specific your loved one can be, the more he or she will help the doctor make an accurate diagnosis.

If your loved one is visiting the doctor for a routine checkup, write down any changes in his or her condition since the last doctor’s visit, and any questions you both may have. You may want to find out, for example, whether or not your loved one should get a flu shot, or how often he or she should have a breast or prostate exam.

Also make sure that your loved one is prepared to tell the doctor about all the medications that he or she takes, including over-the-counter drugs, vitamins, and other supplements. Write down all the relevant information, including the dosage of each pill and how often your loved one takes it. Or you may simply want to take your loved one’s medications—in their original containers—to the appointment.

Both of you need to be honest with the doctor about your loved one’s lifestyle, including diet, alcohol intake, smoking history, supplements taken, and other care received. These factors are important to his or her overall health, and his or her doctor needs to see the big picture.

Don’t Be Afraid To Discuss Sensitive Subjects

Much of the communication between doctor and patient is personal, so in order to have a good partnership with his or her doctor, your loved one might have to talk about sensitive subjects, like sex or memory problems, even if he or she feels embarrassed or uncomfortable. Problems with sexual function, incontinence, depression, or memory may be minor—and learning this information will alleviate much of your loved one’s embarrassment, fear, and anxiety—or they may be symptoms of a larger problem, which needs to be diagnosed and treated right away.

If your loved one has questions or worries about a sensitive subject that his or her doctor doesn’t cover during an exam, make sure he or she lets the doctor know. Talking with the doctor about sensitive issues is important. Although talking about these subjects may be awkward for you, your loved one, and his or her doctor, don’t avoid it. If either of you feel the doctor doesn’t take your concerns seriously, don’t be afraid to change doctors.

Ask Questions

As part of a good doctor-patient relationship, it is important that a doctor communicate well with patients. If your loved one doesn’t ask questions, however, the doctor may simply assume that he or she understands everything that the doctor has said. Both of your should ask questions about:

  • Any tests, treatments, or other procedures that the doctor recommends.
    • Why does my loved one need this procedure?
    • What exactly will happen during the procedure?
    • How long will it last?
    • How will it help my loved one?
    • Are there any potential risks involved?
    • How much will it cost?
    • Will my loved one’s insurance cover it?
    • Are there any other treatment options available?
  • Any diagnosis the doctor makes.
    • How will this condition affect my loved one?
    • How long will it last?
    • How is this condition treated or managed?
    • What long-term effects will it have on our lives?
  • Any medical terms that you don’t understand.
  • Any prescribed medications.
    • When should my loved one take this medicine?
    • Should it be taken with food or milk?
    • What potential side effects could there be?
    • Will it interact with other medications that my loved one is taking?
    • What if my loved one misses a dose?
    • Is there a generic brand of the same drug that might be less expensive?
  • When your loved one should return for a follow-up visit.
  • Anything else that you or your loved one is unsure of.

Keep asking questions until you and your loved one are both satisfied that you understand what the doctor is saying. It may help to repeat something back to the doctor and ask: “Is that right?” If you’re feeling rushed or uncomfortable, make sure that the doctor understands this. He or she may be busy, but you and your loved one have the right to understand everything about his or her condition and treatment. It may be necessary to schedule a follow-up visit, or a brief phone call, to discuss your concerns.

Record Important Information

Once the doctor has answered all of your questions, you’ll probably want to write down this information just to make sure that you or your loved one doesn’t forget it. Take notes while the doctor is talking, or bring along a tape recorder if the doctor doesn’t mind. A tape recorder can be especially important if you or your loved one needs to inform others—family members, friends, other health care providers, employers—about your loved one’s condition.

Whenever possible, ask the doctor to provide written instructions about any medications or other treatments that he prescribes for your loved one. Also ask if he or she has any pamphlets or other materials that explain your loved one’s condition and/or treatment, and if the doctor can recommend any books, videotapes, or other sources of more information. Remember, the more you both know about your loved one’s condition, the better able you will be to provide care and manage the problem.

© Copyright FamilyCare America, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Adapted from Talking With Your Doctor: A Guide For Older People, developed by the United States National Institutes of Health National Institute on Aging.



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