Improving Doctor-Patient Communication
Betty Chaffee, PharmD, is owner and sole proprietor of BetterMyMeds, a Medication Management service devoted to helping people get the maximum benefit from their medications.
As a pharmacist, I love helping my patients understand more about how their medications work, how they improve health, and which ones might not be needed anymore. While every patient brings different questions and health concerns to our discussion, there are some common themes. One of the most common concerns I hear from my patients is an inability to communicate effectively with their healthcare providers. (While providers can be doctors, physician assistants, or advanced practice nurses, I'll use the term "doctor" throughout this post.)
Doctor-patient communication is an important part of healthcare
A comfortable relationship with your doctor can make a huge difference in your health outcomes. Good communication allows trust to develop on both sides. It improves understanding -- your doctor understands your values and concerns better, and you understand your doctor's goals for your health. It also makes monitoring treatment plans (and improving your health) a team effort. Overall, good communication between doctor and patient increases the likelihood that you'll have better health outcomes.
What makes communication so difficult?
Open communication takes time. It takes time to listen and understand, to formulate a response. And typically a doctor's time is extremely limited. Often there's a new patient scheduled every 15 minutes. That leaves very little time to talk. Your doctor likely wants to slow down and spend the time you need, but doesn't have that option.
There are other common reasons, too. You might be worried that if you ask a question your doctor will think you don't trust them. You may be reluctant to show that you didn't understand something. Or maybe you're uncomfortable admitting that you can't afford your prescriptions. Communication can be hard for a lot of reasons.
So how can you develop, and make the most of, a relationship with your doctor? First, it's important to realize that communication is a two-way street. It's probably not just you, and not just your doctor, who's having trouble. Here are some tips to help you get the kind of open communication you want (and need!) from your doctor.
Improving doctor-patient communication
Take a moment to say hello and show you care. Instead of starting off with a list of symptoms and problems, offer a warm greeting or comment on how nice it is to see them again. It doesn't have to take long, but it's a good way of showing that you want a comfortable relationship with your doctor.
Realize that the appointment isn't just for your doctor to check things off a list. The appointment is for you. You can and should help set the agenda. Instead of letting your doctor make all the decisions on what's important to talk about, be prepared to help.
Remember that your doctor doesn't know what's important to you unless you tell them. Let's say you're wondering if you still need to check your blood sugar every morning. You may assume that if it's not necessary, your doctor will bring it up. But your doctor may have other priorities in mind. It's up to you to make sure important issues are brought up.
Bring a list of questions and concerns. Before your appointment, jot down the things you want to be sure to discuss. The more specific the question, the better. For example, instead of "Is my blood pressure OK?", ask "What is my goal blood pressure?"
And be sure to bring a pad of paper and a pen so you can write down the answers! It's estimated that we only remember a small portion of all the information we're given by our doctors. Don't be shy - repeat the answers back and then write them down!
Ask questions about new prescription medicines. If your doctor wants to prescribe a new medicine, ask what it's for, how you're going to know if it works, whether it's expensive, and what side effects to watch for. If cost is an issue for you, talk openly with your doctor about your concern. Print this brochure to take with you to your appointments!
Remember that your doctor wants to keep you healthy even though they're short on time. If time is running out and you still have unanswered questions, ask if you can send questions electronically through your doctor's secure portal. Many doctors are happy to stay in touch with patients in between appointments.
Doctors are people, too
We all have people we just don't click with. Once in a while, doctor-patient relationships just won't click. If you've done your best and you still don't feel comfortable with your doctor, there's nothing wrong with seeking change. Don't stay stuck in a doctor-patient relationship that doesn't give you what you need.
And don't forget about your pharmacist!
Even with the best of relationships between patient and doctor, a pharmacist is still an important part of your healthcare team. A big difference my patients see between a medication review with Better My Meds and one with their doctor is the time we spend. We talk about their questions and concerns, how a medication works and why it's important for health. How their values might impact a treatment plan, and how the risks and benefits of following a treatment plan (or not) might play out in their lives.. Regular appointments with your pharmacist can improve your health outcomes even if you and your doctor talk easily and honestly.
As always, please leave comments and questions in the space below. Or contact us directly at BetterMyMeds. We love hearing from you!