Patient Guide: 10 Ways to Improve Communication with Your Doctor
Good health care begins with good communication. However, research indicates that as many as half of adults in this country have problems understanding health information. There are many reasons for this. Often, health care professionals use scientific terms that patients may not know. For example, you may use the word "stomachache" to describe how you feel, and your doctor may use the word "gastroenteritis." Sometimes, the amount of information given in a medical appointment can be too much to take in. Other times patients report they cannot remember what their doctor has said after they leave.
Health literacy refers to understanding how to get and use health information to take care of yourself. Taking steps to make sure you understand health information your doctor has given you is important, as miscommunications and misunderstandings can lead to dangerous situations where people do not receive the medical treatment they need.
The following 10 steps can help improve communication between you and your doctor:
- Make a list. Before you go to the doctor's office, write down any questions or concerns you have about your health. Take this list with you so you do not forget to ask all of your questions.
- Ask for definitions. If your doctor uses a word you do not understand, ask him or her to re-explain using plain language. Many words sound alike or have different meanings when talked about in health care. For example, whereas the word "negative" has bad implications outside a doctor's office, when a test comes back negative, it is good news. It is okay to say you don't understand.
- Know your goals. Ask your doctor to define your health care goals. For example, if your doctor tells you to check your blood pressure to make sure it is within normal range, you will need to know what "normal" means.
- Do the talking. After your doctor has finished explaining something to you, explain it back to your doctor. This will help you remember it and help to make sure both you and your doctor understand the information in the same way.
- Picture it. A picture can be worth a thousand words. Ask your doctor to draw a picture or give you an illustration of the concept he or she is talking about. For example, a doctor might suggest certain exercises for someone with low back pain. A drawing may be far easier to understand than a spoken description.
- Slow it down. If you health care provider speaks quickly, ask him or her to speak slowly so that you do not miss information.
- Don't be shy. If you have concerns regarding treatment, tell your health care provider. He or she may have information that will relieve your concerns, or there may be alternative treatments.
- Consider taking a partner. Bringing a trusted family member or friend can be a big help when it comes to understanding information and remembering instructions once back at home.
- Ask for a recap. At the end of your appointment, ask your doctor to repeat the main points and type or write down take home instructions.
- Follow-up. If you get home and cannot remember instructions, contact your doctor. If your physician offers communication via secure e-mail, you will have the added bonus of a written copy of the answer. (Regular e-mail does not provide complete privacy of your health information. If you have questions about whether your doctor uses secure e-mail, be sure to ask.)
Health care is a team effort. Make your doctor a partner in your health with open communication. This is your health, and it is important that you understand how to take care of it.
Reprinted with permission from the Journal of Patient Safety 2006, Lippincott Williams & Wilkins