A friend of mine recently called me about an hour after his doctor had told him that he had prostate cancer and asked if I could help him decide on the best way to proceed. Of course, I was happy to help. But when I asked exactly what his doctor had said, my friend didn’t know! All he remembered hearing were two words—“prostate cancer.”
Not remembering what your doctor tells you is extremely common—especially if it’s a scary diagnosis or a complicated explanation laden with medical terms. In fact, a classic study conducted by researchers at Allegheny College found that 40% to 80% of the information told to patients by health-care providers is forgotten immediately! The greater the amount of information shared, the greater the percentage that was forgotten. What helps—you can do any or all of the following, depending on your needs…
- Get it in writing and in a picture. It’s long been known that we retain information best when we receive it both verbally and visually. Research backs this up. A study found that when patients were given only verbal medical instructions, just 14% of the information was retained compared with 85% when a visual and text were provided. That means you should always ask your doctor to write down—or give you preprinted information—about your diagnosis. You probably already bring your own pad and pen to take notes at your appointment. But that may not be enough. Ask your doctor to also show you a picture or diagram of what is wrong with you—he/she could use an X-ray, a plastic anatomical model or textbook drawing of the problem area. You can take a photo of the visual with your phone. Also important: Ask your doctor to give you written instructions about follow-up care and/or how to use prescribed medications, even if you expect to get similar information from your pharmacy. Your doctor may suggest taking the drug less frequently at first or have some other reason for adjusting its typical use.
- Don’t go alone. We all know that it’s smart to bring a family member or friend to important medical appointments so you’ll have a second set of ears to remember what the doctor has said. You have a right to have someone with you in the examining room to ask questions or seek clarification. When I recently had surgery, I made sure my wife came with me to every pre- and postoperative appointment. She asked questions I had not thought of and described things that happened during my recovery that I had forgotten. This additional information also helped the doctor in her review of how I was doing.
- Make a recording. One of the best ways to not forget what your doctor tells you is to make a brief voice and/or video recording of your medical appointment. Your smartphone likely has an app that enables it to function as a mini tape recorder. If not, you can download one of these apps from your phone’s app store. Either hold the phone or put it on a nearby table. Make sure you know how to record beforehand. You can also use your phone’s camera to make a video recording (with sound) of your doctor appointment. If you don’t have a smartphone, it’s worth purchasing a battery-operated handheld digital recorder. You can get one for less than $50. Whatever method you use, just be sure to ask your doctor if it’s OK to record the conversation. These days, most doctors say it’s fine, but you should get their permission to record.