If you’re a caregiver—whether you’re the spouse, a family member, friend or someone who’s been hired—dealing with the “patient’s” doctor can be a problem. Due to a patient’s advanced age or disability or the nature of his/her illness (such as dementia), he may not be able to communicate effectively with the physician. All too often, however, caregivers are not exactly sure what their rights are when it comes to dealing with the doctors caring for their loved one or charge. What helps…

Start with the patient. Assuming that the person being cared for needs help at the doctor’s office and/or interacting with the doctor, the caregiver (and possibly other family members) should gently explain to the patient that the caregiver will help with all medical issues. This typically includes accompanying the patient to appointments…asking questions…taking notes…and discussing with the doctor related issues, such as symptoms to watch out for or the need for home-care services. The patient should also be reassured that the caregiver will be there to help with—but not dominate—the patient’s interactions with the doctor. The patient should feel that he and the caregiver are a team.

• Get the paperwork in order. Under federal law, including privacy rules found in HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act), patients have the right to designate whomever they wish to receive medical information from their doctors or hospitals. But the patient must complete the relevant paperwork with each doctor or hospital. A person also can be designated by being named in an “advance directive” (such as a living will or health-care power of attorney), which states who can receive the patient’s health information and who can make medical decisions if the patient is unable or unwilling to do so. Printable advance directive documents (customized for the state in which the patient lives) are available at AARP.org/caregiving/financial-legal/free-printable-advance-directives. Even without these documents, patients have the right to have anyone they wish accompany them during their physician appointments or hospital visits. 

• Make the most of the doctor appointment. Begin by writing down a list of questions before the appointment. Tell the doctor as soon as you and the patient enter that you have questions that need to be answered before you leave. Also, for each doctor appointment, don’t forget to take an up-to-date list of all the medications the patient is taking. Because patients so often see multiple health-care providers, one doctor may not know what another has prescribed.

Important: Even if you are asking the questions or are the person who will implement the doctor’s instructions, be sure the doctor speaks directly to the patient. Too often, doctors ignore the patient. Also, if you are not clear about what the doctor is saying or prescribing, ask him to slow down and explain it again and perhaps even write down instructions for you to follow. Don’t be rushed. Remember, you are responsible for the patient’s care once you leave the office.