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5 Tips for Getting the Answers You Need from a Doctor

You deserve meaningful communication with doctors. Here’s how to get it.

Key points

  • If you or a loved one face a serious illness, you know that talking with doctors can sometimes be difficult.
  • With a little preparation, you can help ensure that the physician is a meaningful ally and your best source of information.
  • Conversations with doctors often go more smoothly when patients or family members come with an agenda of three or four questions or topics.
  • Taking notes or having someone accompany you to a doctor's appointment can also help make sure you remember the most crucial information.

If you or a loved one are facing a serious illness, you know that talking with doctors can sometimes be difficult. Many physicians are excellent communicators that display great empathy, of course. After all, helping people is what inspired most doctors to get into the business in the first place. Unfortunately, doctors don’t always communicate with patients and families as effectively as possible (and vice versa). This can occur for lots of reasons. Sometimes the responsibility falls upon doctors—they may use overly technical jargon or fail to spend sufficient time answering questions. Still other times, patients or caregivers can’t think of the right questions to ask, or feel intimidated by the whole process, and so remain quiet. If you’ve experienced any of these situations, you know how frustrating they can be. Nonetheless, it’s often worth trying again to communicate with the physician. Here are five tips that can help you get the most out of your interactions with your doctor.

Source: wutzkohphoto/Shutterstock

Tip #1: Do Your Homework

Decades ago it was commonplace for patients and family members to unquestioningly follow doctors’ orders. Because there were fewer medical options, doctors often knew all of the options. Increasingly, this situation is changing, and, for better or worse, doctors are less likely to tell patients exactly what choices are the right ones. This requires that patients and their families do homework, and a little can go a long way. For instance, consider reading a book on the particular medical condition you’re facing. Alternatively, websites can offer good background information about the causes and treatments of a variety of illnesses. Be careful to read legitimate, science-based websites. One way to make sure you’re getting accurate information is to visit the sites of major national organizations like the American Heart Association or the American Cancer Society. The CDC’s website can also be a useful one for information on conditions like diabetes, cancer, the flu, and of course, COVID-19. Additionally, if you know people who have faced serious illness before, ask them about their experiences. All of this information will help you decide what questions to ask the doctor.

Tip #2: Have an Agenda

For better or worse, doctors are extraordinarily busy people. Because most doctors will only be able to talk for up to fifteen minutes at a time, it’s crucial to prioritize what is most important to discuss. This enables you and the physician to maximize your time together. Of course, while most people have a good idea of what they need to talk about, it’s easy to forget questions or issues once the doctor is in the room. That’s why it’s important to write down an agenda. Although this takes preparation on your part, it’s well worth the effort.

The best kind of agenda is a simple list written down on a sheet of paper. Research shows that physicians get a lot out of such lists. By having your agenda on paper, they can quickly see not only what you want to know, but also what you aren’t asking but may need to know. In general, it’s best to keep the agenda to only three or four major topics or questions that you would like to cover during your meeting. If you select more than this, you probably won’t have time for all of them, so keeping the list manageable is essential. You can even hand this list to the doctor at the beginning of your meeting, so they can make sure to get to all the issues you’ve written down.

Tip #3: Make an Appointment

It may seem obvious—and even unavoidable—to make an appointment with the doctor. That’s true for standard outpatient visits, of course. But in inpatient facilities, things can be different. Doctors may seem to show up with little warning and even less time to talk. But there is a method to the madness. If you’re the primary caregiver of a family member who is in the hospital, you may or may not be able to be physically present. If you’re able to be there, try asking a nurse when the doctor normally makes rounds so you can be in the room to meet them. If you need more time than the doctor can afford during rounds, consider asking for a return visit at a more convenient time. You can ask something like, “Would it be possible to set up a time to meet? I have a few questions that I’ve written down and think it will take about fifteen minutes.” If you’re not able to be physically present, you can often arrange a phone or video chat appointment through the physician’s administrative assistant or nurse.

Tip #4: Bring Someone with You

Although many doctors are very approachable, some can be intimidating. Because they may seem very sure of their opinions, you may feel pressure to act like you agree even when you don’t. If this is the case, consider asking a trusted friend or family member to accompany you during your appointment—this can be done in person or sometimes through a conference call, when necessary. Although optional, having someone by your side has major advantages. First, your companion can provide moral support, so you’ll be more likely to assert yourself when necessary. Second, your companion may think of questions or concerns that you’ve overlooked. But, perhaps most importantly, after the appointment, your companion will be in a great position to help you think through the information you’ve learned from the doctor.

Tip #5: Take Notes

Finally, consider taking notes when meeting with the doctor. Fifteen minutes pass quickly. Unfortunately, research shows that people generally understand and remember only part of what their doctors say. Your notes will remind you of what was discussed and help you make informed decisions. Another option is to audio-record your meeting. This option is significantly less desirable, however, because doctors may be less likely to speak frankly while being recorded. If you believe that you won’t be able to divide your attention efficiently between listening to the doctor and taking notes, this is also an excellent role for anyone who might accompany you to the appointment.

At the end of the day, you deserve meaningful communication with doctors. Your questions merit thorough answers, and you are worthy of having your hopes, fears, and anxieties compassionately addressed. Meaningful dialogue with the doctor is a right, not a gift. Such conversations don't always come easy, of course. But with a little preparation, you can help ensure that the physician is a meaningful ally and your best source of information in the journey through illness.