In a recent post, I wrote a wish list of things I'd like every doctor or other health care professional to know. It was both an enjoyable and empowering exercise: too often, doctor-patient communication is fraught with time constraints, miscommunication, intimidation, anxiety or feeling overwhelmed and confused. It was finally my chance to say what was on my mind (and speak for many of you, too, I'm sure).
Long after I wrote this, the post lingered in my mind, nagging at me. Finally, I realized that I left out a big part.
We, as patients, also bear a responsibility in enhancing doctor-patient communication. And that responsibility is not only to show up, but show up clear-headed and well prepared. We need to be our own advocates, and with that comes work. After all, we are half of the equation. We can have the best, most skilled physician in the universe, but we might never know it if he or she is not given every opportunity to prove it.
Good doctor-patient communication makes a difference, not only in patient satisfaction but in compliance and eventual outcome, too.
In a statement, Alfred A. Bove, MD, PhD, professor emeritus at Temple University School of Medicine in Philadelphia and vice chair of American College of Cardiology's (ACC) Patient-Centered Care Committee, said,
"As clinicians, we have been taught for many years to give patients orders and expect things to happen … but when it comes to the day-to-day management of chronic conditions, like heart disease, we have to empower patients to be actively involved in their own care. We won't be effective unless we move toward a patient-centered approach."
Here are some ways you can get the most from the time you have with your doctor:
1. Write down questions or issues ahead of time. And prioritize them. We tend to save the most important question for last (and that's when the doctor might have one foot out the door). Keep this notepad handy for taking notes during your visit, too. (Better yet, devote the same notebook to all your doctor visits so you have everything in one place; best to get one with a built-in pocket where you can store copies of your test results.)
2. If you're there for a diagnostic visit, make sure you come prepared with a detailed description of your symptoms. Be aware of when the problem began, how it makes you feel, what triggers it and what works or doesn't work to make you feel better.
3. Bring a list of your medications and dosages. Include both prescription and over-the-counter medications and any vitamins, herbs or supplements you take.
READ: Facts to Know About Medication Safety
4. Make sure you understand how to take any medications that are prescribed. Now's the time to check on interactions with other drugs you take, what to do if you miss a dose, if there is a certain time of day you should take the medication, what side effects to expect, how soon to expect to feel a difference, if there's a generic or less expensive version and if there are any foods, drugs or activities you should avoid while taking the medication. (Your pharmacist is also an invaluable source of this information.)
5. Ask for support materials. If your doctor is discussing something like treatment options, it can get confusing and complicated. Many times, pamphlets are available for you to take home. Also, ask about reliable websites that you can refer to once home. The more information you have—providing its current and reliable—the more you're able to participate in your own health care.
6. Don't be afraid to ask questions or ask for clarification. A study from the University of Washington found that doctors rarely (only 1.5 percent of the time) ask patients whether they understand what was discussed during an appointment. Say something like, "So, if I understand correctly, you are telling me XXX." Reiterate what your understanding of the conversation is.
7. Check ahead to make sure your doctor has your test results and/or reports from other labs or doctors. This gives you the opportunity to discuss those results in person, rather than over a rushed phone call—assuming you can get your doctor on the phone.
8. Bring a friend or family member with you. Another set of ears is always helpful. You might be too overwhelmed or emotional to be fully present during a visit and be able to comprehend all that is transpiring. A recorder is also helpful to serve as yet another set of ears.
9. Be honest! Hiding information about symptoms, personal habits or other things could hinder a proper diagnosis. Sharing information about your health— both emotional and physical—enhances understanding between you and your doctor.
10. Edit your information. Not to the point of omitting important details (see above); but since studies show that you have only 23 seconds to speak before the doctor interrupts, it's important to weed out any irrelevant facts.