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Communicating With Your Doctor
by Mel July 13th 2009, 09:23 AM

Article featured in Avatar - Volume 2, Issue 12 (June 2009).

Communicating With Your Doctor
By drowningangel

The following article contains tips and answers on:
  • How to address your symptoms
  • How to understand tests/diagnosis/procedures
  • How to ask the embarrassing questions
  • How to keep records/notes

Getting Started.

When you have a problem or need to visit a doctor, there are certain things you’re going to need.
  • Records: If this is a new doctor, bring any records you have with you of your health or medical situation that is to be addressed.
  • Insurance: Always make sure you have any insurance information with you at the time of the appointment, along with co-payment (the amount some insurances ask you pay per office visit, ER trip, surgery, etc).
  • Paperwork: Many doctors will send you paperwork in advance or will ask you to fill out forms at your arrival. Always fill out everything you can, as honestly as possible (smoking, drug usage, alcohol, etc). Note: Your doctor will not "turn you in" for being honest about these things, no matter your age or their legality.
  • Medications: You may either bring a bag with your prescription bottles and any over-the-counter medications you may take or a list with these medicines (name, dosage, usage).

The above items are normally required at most clinics, although walk-in clinics may not require your records. Having these items ahead of time will help you when the appointment arrives and will also keeps you from having to explain things repeatedly to the nurses and the doctor.

The Symptoms.

Before your appointment, it is a good idea to make a list of the symptoms you are experiencing. This often helps you to remember issues you may otherwise forget in your rush to explain everything, and it will also help your doctor in their perception of what is going on. Try to be as exact and concise about your symptoms as possible. The more descriptive and specific you can be, the better. Here are some good questions to ask yourself when listing your symptoms:
  • What are my symptoms?
  • When did they start? How long have they been a problem?
  • Are my symptoms constant? If not, when do they come back?
  • Does anything make the symptoms worse? Or better?
  • Do the symptoms affect me daily? If so, how? When?

After your name is called, you will likely have your blood pressure and temperature taken, and your height and weight will be measured. Once you are taken into a room, someone (a nurse or assistant) will sit down and ask you why you have come to the doctor. This is where most people become embarrassed and begin to stammer or blush, especially with issues such as incontinence, reproductive/genital problems, or rectal issues (such as hemorrhoids).

Most doctors recommend the following: If you feel uncomfortable talking to the nurse or assistant about the problem you are having, let them know you are only comfortable speaking to the doctor about your issue. Always keep in mind, though, that these people are professionals, and though it might be embarrassing to you, they will not be bothered nor will they attempt to intentionally embarrass you further. If you choose to wait until the doctor comes in to discuss your problem, you must be honest and tell them exactly what is wrong. They cannot help you if they do not know all of your symptoms – all of them.

Always keep in mind that symptoms do not simply mean physical manifestations. The term also includes emotional and mental states. For example, patients with chronic pain often experience depression, and treatment of the mental state is critical to helping the physical state as well.

Time Management.

It is not unusual for a patient to feel rushed or short of time during a doctor’s visit. That is because, typically, a doctor’s visit is booked for a length of fifteen minutes, so as patients, it is our responsibility to learn how to make the most of our time with the doctor.
  • Decide which questions are the most important. Pick three or four issues that are the most pressing and important to you. Ask them at the beginning of the appointment, and if you have time, move on to the other concerns.
  • Stick to the point. Although we may like to go into detail about some issues, try to give exact but brief answers, such as what the symptom is, approximately when it began, and what causes it.
  • Be honest. Beating around the bush can be tempting, especially if you are not doing something your doctor recommended or something with which they may not agree. For example, if you are underage but are having sex, this is something your doctor needs to know to perform the appropriate procedures and tests.

Taking Notes.

Although making lists and taking notes of issues to mention during the appointment is a good idea, you may also wish to take notes during the appointment itself on any tests your doctor may recommend, possibilities for what may be wrong, prescriptions you’re given, or suggestions they may make. This is all for your benefit for the future, and you can also research any of this further once you leave the office.

Bring a small pad of paper, pen or pencil, or even a tape recorder to your appointment. Ask for copies of test results, doctor’s notes, prescriptions, anything you may feel you’ll need at a later time. Most offices will be happy to oblige you.

Ask Questions.

Understanding what your doctor is saying or doing is a big part of being active in your health care. If you do not ask questions, your doctor will likely assume you understand what they said and move on, and if you don’t ask your question then, you may forget what you wished to ask by the end of the appointment.

Ask questions when you don’t know the meaning of a word (aneurysm or hypertension, for example) or if you don’t know what a certain test is. Knowing as much as you can about what is being done for you and your health is a vital tool and is in your best interest. Understanding tests and terms will help you further on with any diagnoses you may receive.
  • Tests. How is this test administered? What does it tell you? Why are you ordering this test? When are the results back? Are there any dangers?
  • Diagnosis. What may have caused this? How will this affect me? What is the treatment? What is the prognosis (outlook)?
  • Medications. How long will I be taking this? What does this medicine do? What are the side effects? When should I take it? Will this interact with any of my other medications?

If you happen to forget something and remember a question you wish to ask after the appointment is over, call the office and ask to leave a message, or call your local pharmacist (if it’s concerning a prescription). Your health team encompasses nurses, pharmacists, office managers, and doctors. Don’t be afraid to contact any of them with a question.

“Taboo” Topics.

We talked a bit earlier about embarrassing questions and symptoms. It is very important to understand that you need to feel you can talk to your doctor about anything, at any age. Too many patients let a lot of problems go for too long due to fear or embarrassment of discussing it with their doctor. There are many of these problems, but we’ll list a few of the most common.
  1. Sexuality. It doesn’t matter if you are a teenager or an adult. If you are unsatisfied with your sex life due to what you feel may be a physical issue, or if you have questions about sex, sexually transmitted diseases, or pregnancy, feel free to ask your doctor. Allowing some STDs to go for too long can cause serious problems without medical treatment, even including infertility.
  2. Family problems. If you are having issues within your family, especially if it is causing you to be hesitant on discussing your health, tell this to your doctor. They can tell you what they can and cannot tell your parents, the specifics of doctor-patient confidentiality in your area, and may even be able to suggest further tips to help you and your family’s relationship. If therapy is needed, they can also refer you to a therapist who specializes in the problem area.
  3. Problems with your doctor. Many worry that if they bring up an issue with their doctor that is causing them to be unhappy with their treatment they will be dismissed. While doctors do reserve that right, it is usually not the case at all. Most physicians want to work to make sure their patient is happy with their care, but they can’t know what they are doing wrong if they are not informed. For instance, a question could be: “I understand you have a lot of patients, but I’m really unhappy on the length of time it takes for you or one of your nurses to call me back. Is there something we can do about this?” If, however, you feel you are not receiving the standard of care you should be after discussing it with your doctor, begin looking for a new physician and request a transfer of records.

Bringing a family member/friend.

Some find that they often forget some things during the appointment, or they’re simply more comfortable with someone else there. If this is the case, you have the right to bring a family member or a friend with you to your appointments. They may think of questions you forget to ask, and they may be able to help you after the appointment to understand everything said.

Doctor appointments may never be fun, but a trusting relationship between you and your doctor can make visits much easier to handle. Communication is essential to being active in your healthcare, so be proactive! Keep these tips in mind, and hopefully, your next visit will be a breeze.

Last edited by Mel; May 6th 2010 at 03:56 AM.
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