Is the Doctor Talking Right Over Your Head?

Has this ever happened to you?

  • You’re in the doctor’s office and you get cut off trying to describe your symptoms.
  • Or, your doctor is recommending a treatment using medical jargon.
  • Maybe the doctor acts rushed or can’t explain clearly?
  • Do you get the chance to ask questions or leave feeling lost?

You may feel awkward bringing this up to the doctor. Some patients see the doctor as an authority figure who shouldn’t be questioned. We’ll share just how important patient-doctor communication is. Having a doctor who talks over your head can be dangerous.

Unfortunately, these communication issues are all too common. Only 21% of patients in one study of orthopedic surgeons reported satisfactory communication. Patients are often unhappy with communication even when the doctor rates it as excellent. Physicians regularly discourage patients from voicing their concerns and expectations. When asking patients questions, doctors interrupted them on average 23 seconds into their first answer.

How This Hurts You

Studies have shown this lack of communication often leads to poor medical results. Without sufficient explanation, patients may not understand their condition and treatment. Lack of consensus may lead to treatment failure.

As many as 80% of medical errors result from miscommunications. A 2005 study showed fewer than half of all patients knew their diagnosis when discharged from the hospital. This makes it very difficult for you to get the proper treatment. It means other providers don’t have the information they need either.

6 practical tips to promote good communication and address problems:

1. Organize your medical information. Come prepared to give your doctor all your diagnoses, medications, surgical history and family history. Read more about how to organize this and how a care manager can help.

2. Prepare notes before your visit or consultation. Write down your symptoms. It can be hard to accurately remember later, so make notes as pain or problems happen. How long did it last? What else was going on at the time? Did something relieve or worsen it? Make a list of important questions.

3. If you have significant changes to communicate, consider sending over a concise written summary to the office beforehand. Many doctors use electronic systems now, so you may be able to message them securely with this information.

4. Take notes during your visit. This can help you spot things you don’t understand or missed. Review them afterward to make sure you’ve digested everything and know next steps. Contact the doctor or nurse if you’re unclear on anything.

5. Do some reading on your condition/surgery/treatment. Ask your medical professionals for reputable health sites. See if they have literature they’d recommend.

6. Consider hiring a care manager. As your patient advocate, they ensure clear doctor-patient communication. They make sure your questions get answered. You get the information you need and so do your medical providers.

Bonus Recommendations:

  • Find out how the doctor/office prefers to communicate. Many offices have adopted electronic systems which will allow you to easily communicate and share information.
  • Technology is your friend. These systems help you keep accurate records and access information. Make sure you have your own health “file” set up online. Get copies of test results and summaries to store there. You won’t have to track things down later. This is especially helpful in a crisis.

Benefits of Good Communication with your Doctor

This may seem obvious. Of course, good communication will help. But, you may not realize just how much it can impact your health and treatment success. Patients reporting good communication with the doctor are more likely to share information that helps with accurate diagnosis. With a clear picture of what’s going on, the doctor can provide the best treatment.

And, you’re more likely to follow advice and instructions. If the doctor explains in a way you understand, you’ll likely follow through. If you can’t understand or don’t feel like a partner in your health, you likely won’t. Patients' agreement with the doctor about the nature of the treatment and need for follow-up is strongly associated with their recovery.

What to Do When Your Doctor Still Talks Right Over Your Head

1. Make an ally at the doctor’s office. Usually, the nurse will be quite helpful if you have questions, problems, or need to be seen. Identifying an ally like this at the office can make all the difference. A little kindness towards this busy professional goes a long way.

2. Bring someone with you to your appointments. If you’re feeling ill (or just anxious), it can be hard to take it all in. Sometimes a family member can fill this role for you. Care managers provide this service for clients, with the bonus of expertise in the system.

3. Consider finding a new doctor. If your attempts fail, it may be time to change doctors. Poor communication can be detrimental to your treatment success.

Ready for better communication with the doctor?

We can help with patient advocacy, finding the best doctors, navigating your treatment options and more.