1/22/2018 by Editor Share Your Story

How to Improve Patient-Doctor Communication


Effective patient-doctor communication ensures that you make the best choices for your health and treatment. Medical terms can sound like a foreign language. Each time you talk with your doctor, make sure you understand exactly what they are telling you. If they use medical words and phrases you don’t understand, ask them to say it differently until you do understand. It is the doctor’s responsibility to explain everything to you in terms you can understand. You need to know what the doctor is telling you in order to make the best choices about your health and treatment.

If you are not sure whether the doctor is listening carefully to you, ask the doctor to repeat back what you just said. This helps to make sure the doctor clearly understood you. If you still have questions at the end of the visit, ask if an additional appointment can be set up, whether the appointment can be extended or if there are other staff members who can answer your questions.

Do Your Research

Before you visit your doctor, you will want to do some research so you know what to ask. There are an overwhelming number of online resources for medical information, and it’s important to know which ones are reliable. Many online health resources are useful, but others may contain inaccurate or misleading information.

  • When visiting a health-related website, identify who publishes the website. Is it a government website (with a .gov at the end of the web address) or a nonprofit organization that focuses on your condition (with a .org at the end of the website address)?
  • Do the claims on the site seem too good to be true? Was the information posted or reviewed fairly recently?
  • Is the information based on scientific research?
  • Is the site selling something?

Resources for Online Health Information

A good place to start when you are looking for accurate health information is MedlinePlus, sponsored by the National Library of Medicine, which is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The site has information about symptoms, causes, treatment and prevention for over 1000 diseases, illnesses, health conditions and wellness issues. MedlinePlus health topics are regularly reviewed, and links are updated daily.

Another good resource is healthfinder.gov, sponsored by the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Strive for Shared Decision-Making

Decisions about your medical treatment should be a collaboration between you and your doctor. Your doctor provides you with information about diagnostic or treatment options, and explains the potential benefits and risks. You explain your preferences about the outcomes you want from these options, what your concerns are and other issues of importance to you, such as convenience and cost. Together, you and your doctor discuss which treatment plan is best able to meet your needs.

Shared decision-making can be especially important when:

  • There is more than one reasonable screening or treatment option
  • No one option has a clear advantage
  • The possible benefits and harms of each option affect patients differently

Regardless of your specific medical condition, you should ask detailed questions if the doctor suggests a treatment or medical test.

If your doctor suggests a treatment, ask:

  • Why are you recommending this treatment?
  • What are the expected outcomes?
  • What are the pros and cons of this treatment?
  • How often will I receive treatment (or how much of the medicine should I take) and for how long?
  • How soon do I need to make a decision about treatment?
  • Is this treatment covered by insurance? If not, how much will it cost?
  • What side effects might you expect? Are any side effects considered
  • severe?
  • Are there other treatment options? What are they?

If your doctor suggests a medical test, ask:

  • Why you need it, and what the possible outcomes are
  • How it is performed
  • What the benefits will be
  • If it’s covered by insurance and if not, how much it costs
  • If there are alternatives
  • When you can expect to hear results
  • If you should phone the office for results, or if the office or testing facility
  • will notify you

Questions About Your Specific Medical Condition

You will have specific questions and concerns depending on your medical condition. There are a variety of resources available that can help you prepare for your doctor visit and get the information and care you need that is specific to your disease.  Healthfinder.gov is a good place to start to find reliable information about specific diseases. Many health organizations have resources that can help you ask the doctor questions about your specific condition. Here are some examples:

  • The Arthritis Foundation has tips for preparing for visiting your arthritis doctor, including a list of words to describe pain, here.
  • The Multiple Sclerosis Society has tips for making the most of your visits with your MS doctor here.
  • The American Cancer Society has tips for your first visit to the oncologist here.
  • For ideas on talking to your doctor about your migraines, here are tips from the American Migraine Foundation.
  • The National Psoriasis Foundation has ideas for talking to your doctor about psoriasis.

Resources for Making Medical Decisions

Maine Health has a list of resources to help patients make medical decisions by combining medical information with personal values. Their website includes information that can help you make decisions about many medical tests, medicines, surgeries, and other issues. The National Learning Consortium also has more information about shared decision-making here.

Ask your doctor about good sources of information about your condition—websites, books and other health professionals in the office (nurse, physician assistant, etc.)

Use Patient Portals

Many health care providers now offer patient portals, which are websites for your personal health care. This online tool can help you keep track of your visits, test results, billing and prescriptions. An important and often overlooked benefit is that you can email your provider questions through the portal. You can let your doctors know ahead of time through the portal what questions you have, to give them time to prepare the answers.

You can alert your doctor about side effects you are having from treatment. You can also use the portal to ask any questions you think of once you get home from a visit.

Your provider may get in touch with you through the portal with reminders and alerts. Some portals allow e-visits for minor issues. E-visits, which may have a small cost, allow you to get diagnosis and treatment options online.

If you do not already have a patient portal, ask your provider if they offer one, and follow the instructions to register for an account. If you have a child under 18, you may be given access to your child’s portal.

The benefit of using a patient portal is that you can communicate with the office when you need to, without having to wait for office hours or return phone calls for basic issues. If you have more than one doctor in a practice, they can all post results and reminders in the portal, and they can see what other treatments and advice you are receiving. If you have an urgent issue, you should still call the doctor’s office instead of waiting for an online response.

Advocating for Yourself in the Hospital

If you are admitted to a hospital for treatment, ask who you can speak to who can help you. This includes language support, a social worker or patient advocate. Ask that the contact information for those individuals be given to you and posted on your patient information board so you can call on them directly.

If you have a concern about how you are being treated in the hospital, speak up immediately, when the problem is occurring. Talk to someone directly involved in your care, such as your doctor or nurse, or the nurse manager or social worker for your floor. Clearly state what you want the hospital to do.

If you feel your needs are not being addressed, you can ask to speak to the hospital’s customer service or patient representative, the hospital’s Patient Safety/Quality Care officer, or the hospital’s patient advocacy office (or customer service office).

If you are contacting the hospital about a problem after you have been discharged, focus on what went wrong, and what can be done now. Clearly describe the problem, the questions you have, and how the hospital can make things better. Keep copies of all correspondence, and keep a log of all phone calls, including dates and the names of people you speak to.

You can also get these thoughts across in a letter. Click here for information about writing a complaint letter from Health Care for All, a Massachusetts nonprofit advocacy organization.

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