Do you ever leave the doctor’s office and realize you don’t understand what you were told? Did you forget to ask the questions you had intended to? Or, did you leave without addressing a problem that’s been bothering you?

Patients often become tongue-tied, intimidated or just overwhelmed when meeting with the doctor. You may be sick and not feeling like yourself. Or, you may be deeply worried about your health. And, the reality is that doctors have limited time with patients to accomplish a lot.

The Challenges with Doctor-Patient Communication

Demands on time: A study by the University of Washington showed the length of appointments hasn’t decreased as much as patients thought, but meaningful time together has (due to documentation, insurance, privacy and other requirements/tasks). Treatment regimens are more complicated. The number of required tests and conditions a primary care doctor is supposed to screen for has skyrocketed.

Poor doctor communication: One Canadian and U.S. study found that doctors interrupt on average within 23 seconds when the patient begins explaining symptoms. In 25% of visits, the doctor never even asked the patient what was bothering him.

Patient unpreparedness: A Dutch study found that half of all visitors to the family doctor hadn’t decided in advance what they wanted to talk about. 77%  did absolutely nothing to prepare for their visit.

The Importance of Good Doctor-Patient Communication

Good medical treatment requires good communication. To do the best job for you the doctor needs information from you and vice versa. If you aren’t clear about medications, treatments, or testing, it can create problems. Without all the information, the doctor can’t make the best diagnosis or treatment plan.

There are clearly challenges to good doctor-patient communication. So, being tongue-tied around the doctor means you have very little chance of having a good outcome from visits. On the other hand, with some preparation and practice, you can get the most out of your doctor’s appointments.

Before we get started with our tips…make sure you have the right doctor. It is important that the doctor has the necessary expertise. Beyond that, however, look for good communication and “bedside manner”. If you feel intimidated by the doctor’s attitude or always feel rushed or unheard, it’s probably a bad fit. This list from provides a good starting point for finding the right doctor. Our team of healthcare advocates can refer you to local professionals and help you navigate medical options.

Steps to Avoid Being Tongue-Tied Around the Doctor

  1. Make notes before your visit. Jot down a concise listing of concerns and symptoms. It’s helpful to keep a log of symptoms or issues, especially if managing a chronic condition. Make note of questions. You or your family member may even want to fax/email over concerns or questions before the visit.
  2. Take notes during your visit. If you are sick and stressed, you may not remember everything that was discussed. The time might go very quickly so it can be hard to take it all in.
  3. Look over your notes and think through the visit afterward. If you have unanswered questions, contact the nurse or follow up with the doctor. (Find out from the office ahead of time the best way to communicate/who to contact. Many doctors now have electronic patient portals and may answer messages there. Some will prefer you contact the nurse via phone.)
  4. Use an advocate. A family member can often serve in this role, but if you don’t have a nearby family member you can hire a care manager. When facing a major diagnosis, surgery, etc. you and your family may want a professional healthcare advocate there also. Your family advocate may feel too stressed and emotional to process everything. Plus, it can help immensely having someone who knows the system.

Bonus tip: Ask for copies of the visit summary or any test results at the visit. Keep these in your own health file (preferably securely stored online). If your doctor uses an electronic health portal, you may be able to access information this way. However, it’s useful to keep your own copy (by getting a hard copy or downloading from the portal). This helps when you go to other practitioners. It can save you time and money you’d have to pay to get copies of your medical file later.

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