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How to talk to your doctor

How to talk to your doctor

With health practitioners busier than ever, communication is essential to getting the best care. Here are our top tips for conveying your needs, so your time with the doctor is as helpful as possible.

Humanising your doctor

happy doctor happy baby

We expect a lot of health practitioners: to spend a reasonable amount of time with us, to communicate effectively, to be in a good mood and to have answers to all our medical questions.

If you ask patients whether these expectations are met, some will say yes, but the majority feel let down. Why? It may be that our expectations are unrealistic, or it may be the result of a breakdown in communication. 

Patients often think of their doctors as infallible, but open conversation can change that. If we see our physicians as ordinary people, our expectations will become more realistic.

For example, when a patient visited her doctor for a cold, the doctor was annoyed with her for taking up valuable time.

The patient was surprised that he would speak to her so irritably. When he saw her reaction, the doctor apologised. He explained that he had a heavy patient load that week and was also worried about his young daughter, who was sick.

The patient realised that perhaps her doctor had a point about a needless visit and that he, too, had personal stresses.



Feeling ignored or dissatisfied

patient doctor

Expressing how you feel to your doctor is important. However, not everyone is open to hearing your criticism, especially if that person is the target.

Choosing the right time is important, as is figuring out how to make your point without causing offence. The old adage that you can catch more flies with honey than vinegar rings true, as long as there’s sincerity.

Suppose you feel that your doctor doesn’t grasp your symptoms accurately. You decide he or she is being obstinate and unwilling to hear what you have to say, and perhaps you’re right.

However, you might be able to get your message across by saying, for instance, “Doctor, for some reason, I don’t seem to be describing my symptoms clearly. I wonder if there’s some other way I could describe them to help you understand.”

This would give your doctor an opportunity to recognise that he or she isn’t on the same page as you.



Exploring your family medical history


We often forget to inform the doctor about crucial family information that might affect diagnosis, prognosis, intervention and even medical treatment. There are many conditions with hereditary factors, such as heart disease, stroke, mental illness and certain types of cancer. If your doctor knows about these patterns, you can discuss which symptoms to watch for and which preventive steps to take.

Imagine that a patient becomes concerned about her risk of a stroke, so she books an appointment with her doctor to discuss it.

“I had no idea about the history of strokes in my family until my grandfather’s last year,” she says. “My mother told me that her own grandfather had died of a stroke too.” 

“I see,” says the doctor, taking notes. “I’m glad you’re telling me now. Better late than never.”

“Then a friend told me that chronic stress can add to the risk,” says the patient. “I have a high-stress job, so I began to worry.” 

“I think it’s premature to start worrying,” says the doctor. “A family history of stroke is no guarantee that you’ll have one too, and there are lots of things you can do to reduce your risk.”

She explains some of the lifestyle factors the patient could control, before finishing up by saying, “You were right to tell me about this possibility. It gives me a good frame of reference and means we can work together to keep you as healthy as possible.”

The patient leaves the doctor’s office feeling relieved—and with a lot of accurate information about strokes.



Discussing symptoms

man with a headache

You should take note of any changes in your body—such as unusual lumps, rashes or persistent pain—and be sure to communicate them to your health practitioner. It allows for early detection of potentially serious conditions and will give your doctor the opportunity to hear about any worries you might have. 

Often, we don’t let the doctor know of the upsets and stresses in our personal lives, even though they might contribute to changes in our health. Emotional problems can, for example, aggravate depression, migraines, backaches, fatigue and stomach pain.

“Doctor,” says a patient, “my headaches have become a lot worse since my wife and I separated last month. They’re interfering with my work, and I’m finding it difficult to concentrate. I’ve tried taking over-the-counter painkillers like you suggested last time, but they don’t seem very effective. I don’t know what to do.” 

“Oh,” says the doctor, “I didn’t know last time about all these changes in your life. They could be increasing your tension levels, which could be a reason for your headaches. How about I check a few other things?”

As she measures his blood pressure, she asks the patient to tell her more. The patient describes how he feels about the break-up of his marriage and the stresses of his job. By the end of the visit, he feels more relaxed about his situation.



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