How to talk so doctors will listen

Increasing your health literacy can increase your health.

Did you know that most new doctors are being trained to better communicate with patients? Why? Because better communication between doctor and patient results in healthier individuals and better health care. Michigan State University Extension says that doctors are trained to gather specific information from you during your visit in order to determine the best course of care. Knowing what they are looking for may help you be more prepared and get the most out of your visit.

Before your doctor visit

  • Decide on what you want to talk about with your doctor. Before your visit, write down any questions you may have that you want to ask the doctor. Decide if you want to talk about any health issues that you are having (constant headache, pain, tiredness, blurred vision, etc.).
  • Prepare “your symptom story” if you have a medical issue. In order to help identify the problem, a doctor will need to know your story in three parts.
  1. Physical symptoms (how your body is feeling): “I have terrible headaches.”
  2. Your personal thoughts and events in your life that you think may be causing it: “I just changed jobs and my schedule has been thrown off. My headaches may because I’m not getting enough sleep.”
  3. How are your symptoms making you feel emotionally? “The headaches make me feel so grumpy that I can’t stand to be around my family!”
  • Prepare your “medical history” for your medical issue. Know the answers to these questions:
    • When did it start?
    • How long? Does it come and go?
    • What makes it better?
    • What makes it worse?
    • What does it feel like?
    • How bad is it?
    • Where is it? Does the pain stay in one spot or move around?

During your doctor’s visit

  • Set your agenda (decide on the things you want to talk about with the doctor together). The office staff may ask you what you want to talk about with the doctor, but don’t assume the doctor knows what you said. Tell the doctor what you want to talk about as soon as he/she walks in the door and says “hello.” Ask what the doctor needs to cover for your prenatal care appointment, if they do not tell you.
  • Tell the three parts of your symptom story: physical, personal, emotional.
  • Give your medical history. Again, your doctor will likely ask similar questions, but be prepared to list them on your own if they do not ask.
  • Your doctor will complete a medical exam.
  • Agree on what to do and be sure to ask questions if you don’t understand.

At the end of the visit, make sure you are both on the same page

Another technique doctors are trained to use is called the “teach back method.” At the end of an appointment they are trained to ask open ended questions like, “Tell me what you understand about taking your medicine” (getting your blood test, following up with a specialist, etc.). This is also an important time to tell them, “I have no idea what you said, please tell me again.” If your doctor doesn’t ask you to repeat back to them the instructions they gave you, clarify it with them by saying, “So this is what I think I heard you tell me to do.”

Repeat back to the doctor what was discussed and how you are to move forward once leaving the office:

  • This is what I understand is the problem…
  • To help me feel better I need to…
  • I should expect to feel better in…
  • I should come back if or when…

The more you communicate the better health care you will receive. Take the time to talk and listen, you deserve the best care you can get.

Information in this article is part of a research study lead by MSU Dr. Lee Anne Roman, PhD, MSN, and Associate Professor with the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Reproductive Biology at MSU. Her research is conducted in collaboration with multiple partners, health systems, health departments, community agencies and the Michigan Department of Community Health (MDCH). She currently leads a five year Agency for Health Care Research and Quality (AHRQ) research demonstration project to develop and test a county population perinatal system of care with primary community partners Spectrum Health, Cherry Street Health Services, Kent County Health Department, Arbor Circle (mental health), Priority Health Plan and MDCH. The system of care model will be developed using the well-established Chronic Care Model and tested for population health impacts.

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