How to Communicate With Your Health Care Provider

How to Communicate With Your Health Care Provider

Here are some tips—from a doctor—on how to improve communications with your health care providers.

Your Health

Communication is a skill that's vital—not just in our relationships, but in just about everything we do. By the time we're in this so-called midlife, we hope we've mastered it, but chances are we slip up from time to time.


From the insignificant (like your order of a "triple, venti, soy, no-foam latte")—to the noteworthy (like telling the waiter to make sure there's no shrimp in that seafood stew, since you're deathly allergic to shrimp)—without proper communication, we risk a return trip to Starbucks or worse: a life-or-death trip to the ER.

The words we choose—and just as importantly how we say them—have a huge impact on getting our point across. Even nonverbal skills like body language give away a lot of information, whether we realize it or not.

One of the most common communication problems occurs with our doctors and other health care providers. I can think of many reasons why, and I'm sure you could add your own to this short list:

  • Managed care has put time constraints on many medical practices.
  • Patients feel vulnerable or intimidated by their physicians and become tongue-tied or afraid to speak up.
  • Communication skills decline as medical students progress through their stressful and demanding training (this article gives insights into what happens to doctor-patient communication).
  • Some health care providers avoid discussing emotional issues (as do some patients).

Yet, without proper communication, our health is at risk. Family physician Karen Trollope-Kumar, MD, says, "Like any healthy relationship, good communication is fundamental.… When that vital link of understanding is broken between doctor and patient, a cascade of negative consequences can result."

I'm very grateful to Dr. Trollope-Kumar, who offers the following excellent tips for improving communication with your health care provider.

  1. If you are seeing your health care provider for a complicated issue, ask the receptionist to book you a longer appointment.
  2. Prepare ahead for what you're going to say and keep it concise and focused.
  3. If you've done some research on the Internet about your problem and want to share it with your health care provider, make sure you use reputable sites to get that information. Don't waste time with reams of dubious information.
  4. Avoid coming into the health care provider's office with a list of unrelated problems. Focus on your main concern for that visit.
  5. If you are going in to get results of an important test, bring a friend or relative with you. Sometimes it can be hard to remember what you are told, especially when the topic is emotionally laden.
  6. If you have a particular worry about a symptom (for example, could the symptom indicate cancer?), express that concern to your health care provider.
  7. If your health care provider recommends a treatment you don't feel comfortable with, explain your reasons and see if an alternative approach would be possible.
  8. Keep your follow-up appointment, and, at that time, let the provider know how well (or not) the treatment has worked.
  9. If you're not happy with the service you're getting, communicate this clearly but politely, using "I" statements. (For example, "I feel concerned about how long it took to receive these test results.")
  10. If you're happy with the service you're getting from your health care provider, a word of thanks or a card is always appreciated.

And since we're talking about communication, here's what I think midlife women want their health care providers to know. (It felt good to get that off my chest!)

More related reading:
What to Say to a Friend With Cancer
Better Communication With Your Doctor

This post originally appeared on mysocalledmidlife.net.

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