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How to Get Your Doctor to Listen—and Answer Your Questions

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We have all heard this before. “I went to see the doctor and it was like I was talking to a wall.” Or, “My doctor seems like he can’t wait to get me out of the exam room and move on to the next patient.”

Indeed, patients today are frustrated and even angry about their perceived or real miscommunication with their doctors. And in many cases, this is justified. Studies have shown that on average it only takes 12 seconds for your doctor to interrupt you as you are describing what brought you to his/her attention. But, it doesn’t have to be this way.

With our aging population and our leading longer (and in many cases sicker) lives, encounters with doctors are at an all-time high. And that means the system that is supposed to care for you quite literally is bursting at the seams. This means less time for your doctor to learn who you are, what your health problems are and to design a plan to diagnose and treat you. As I’ve alluded to in prior blogs, the average American is taking more than one prescription medicine…is dealing with one or more chronic health problems…and many live in underserved areas of the nation with regard to access to a doctor. So, what can you do to help yourself when your doctor seems not to listen?

First, let’s dig deeper into why this is so. Let’s start with time and the lack of it. Doctors are under tremendous pressure to see lots of patients each day. The reasons are twofold: increased numbers of sick people and complex financial factors and incentives to see more patients. Second, with the advent of the electronic medical record, doctors are often clacking away at the keyboard during your visit, which means less direct, quality time paying attention to you and your problems. Third, doctors are human, and that means they carry with them the biases and prejudices, unfortunate as they are, that the rest of us possess. Shockingly, some studies have shown that white doctors pay less attention to minority patients, particularly African-Americans, and that can lead to missing a diagnosis or misdiagnosing a problem. There’s really no excuse for that.

So what can you do to make the most of your doctor’s visit? Bottom Line has a lot of articles on this site with useful insights on just that topic. Assuming you’ve got your list of questions (and if you don’t, make one!), here are some of my favorite tips on how to help ensure you get the answers you need…

  • Share your top two (or at most three) concerns at the beginning of the appointment, so your doctor will know what needs to be covered. And for suggestions on how to redirect the conversation when your doctor digresses, read this.
  • Rehearse your questions. You may get nervous if your doctor seems rushed. Pre-appointment prep—even if it’s just in your head—will you make your points clearly and effectively.
  • Don’t diagnose yourself. Just describe what’s going on without a self-diagnosis. Otherwise, you might bias your doctor, leading to misdiagnosis.
  • Share about yourself. The more nonmedical information your doctor knows about you, the better he will relate to you as a person and not just a set of symptoms.
  • Request a response by E-mail or a follow-up phone call if the doctor doesn’t have time during your visit to answer all of your questions. Or ask if a nurse practitioner is qualified and available to talk… or book another appointment for a consultation to finish talking things through.
  • Find out how to get follow-up questions answered. Naturally, you may have more questions that come up after your appointment. Does your doctor have a patient portal that can be used for such communications? Should you call the office or e-mail your questions?

Going to the doctor is hard enough. But by carrying a copy of this blog with you and rehearsing beforehand what you want to cover, perhaps you can get your doctor to really hear what brought you in.

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