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Effective Patient - Doctor Communications

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Updated September 13, 2011

There are more challenges than ever in today's healthcare environment. Limited appointment time, the ability of patients to do their own research which then needs to be discussed with practitioners, and the numbers of patients who are undiagnosed or misdiagnosed; these challenges and others make effective communications between patients and their practitioners more important than ever.

Good communications really boils down to two things: respect for each other, and the ability to manage expectations.

The following will help you understand how to be a good communicator yourself, and what to expect from a practitioner who is a good communicator.

A patient who is a good communicator:

  • Will be mindful of the doctor's limited time. While some references tell us a patient has an average of only 8-10 minutes per appointment with his doctor, other references say the average is 16-20 minutes. The discrepancy may be due to the kind of visit, whether the doctor is primary care or a specialist, or even health insurance coverage. Regardless of the difference, it makes most sense for us patients to prepare ahead for the probability that the visit will be shorter than we expect. (Why Won't My Doctor Spend Enough Time with Me?)

  • Will be concise in his communication, preparing carefully for meetings with his practitioner. A well-organized patient prepares questions ahead of appointments, and sticks to the facts. With so little appointment time, you'll want to be sure your doctor has all the important information about your problems, and has time to answer all your questions.

  • Will ask the meaning of words and concepts he doesn't understand. Doctors are trained to use a lexicon of med-speak that baffles us patients. General medical terms are used by all doctors or many specialties. Other words and concepts are specific to body systems, conditions, diseases or treatments. In all cases, you'll walk away much more satisfied from your visit, having learned what you need to know, if you stop your doctor and ask for a definition or description when he uses a concept or term you don't understand.

  • If interrupted, will ask the doctor to stop and listen respectfully. Some studies say it takes only 23 seconds before a doctor interrupts his patient. Dr. Jerome Groopman, author of How Doctors Think, states that doctors interrupt their patients within 18 seconds of the start of their conversation. If your doctor interrupts you, it can feel like an insult. Politely ask him to listen to your entire list of symptoms, or to let you ask your entire question. Sometimes a simple gesture such as gently holding up your hand will alert your doctor to stop and listen to you.

  • Will ask his doctor what to expect next. No matter what point you are in your transition through the system: before, during or after diagnosis or treatment, asking your doctor what happens next will help you understand what is going on immediately, and what your outcomes might be. For example, if your doctor says he is sending you for a medical test, you might ask what he expects the results will be, or what the possible outcomes might be, and what they would mean. If he can manage your expectations, you will have more confidence about the process and its outcomes.

  • Will know which questions to ask the doctor, and which to save for others. Your doctor is the person who should answer any of your medical questions. But other questions, such as directions to a testing center, or the time of your next appointment, or where you should park your car, can be asked of others on the doctor's staff. That conserves your short appointment time for the important, medical aspects of your care.

A doctor or practitioner who is a good communicator:

  • Has respect for her patient. Good doctors understand that a sick or injured patient is highly vulnerable. Being respectful goes a long way toward helping that patient explain symptoms, take responsibility for decision-making, and complying with instructions.

  • Has the ability to share information in terms her patients can understand . It's OK to use med-speak and complicated terms, but they should be accompanied by an explanation at the same time.

  • Doesn't interrupt or stereotype her patients. It's easy for all of us to interrupt when we know time is short or we are in a hurry, but a practitioner who is a good communicator knows that if it can't be done right to begin with, it will need to be done over. Listening carefully and respectfully will go a long way toward better outcomes for the patient.

  • Has the ability to effectively manage patients' expectations. By helping her patient understand what the next steps will be, and what the possible outcomes and their ramifications might be, the doctor can go a long way toward helping that patient understand his problem.

What to Do If Your Communications with Your Doctor Don't Work Well

Sometimes, despite our best attempts, we just can't establish that rapport with our doctors. the problem may be with our own approach, or it could be the doctor's communications style. Here are some resources for helping you decide what to do if you and your doctor don't communicate well.

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