My mother, who lived to age 91, always called her doctors by their first names. Even with a new doctor she would say, “Just call me Betty. And I’ll call you by your first name.” Not one doctor ever balked! Here was her thinking: Being on a first-name basis with her doctors automatically eased the communication barriers between them. Too often, patients are intimidated by doctors, making them afraid to ask questions. Now research is confirming that my mother was really on to something—the better your communication with a doctor, the better your medical outcomes tend to be. But even if it’s not your style to address your doctor by his/her first name, there are other steps you can take to make the most of your communications. My advice…


We hear a lot about “partnering” with our doctors, but what does that really mean? Just as you would expect in any healthy relationship, you and your doctor need to be open and honest with each other. What also helps: It’s common to be somewhat nervous when you see a doctor. But instead of freezing up, be open and tell him a little about yourself and your family. Where have you lived or traveled? What is (or was) your occupation? The more nonmedical information your doctor knows about you, the more likely he will better understand you as a person.


As soon as possible, talk to your doctor about your expectations—as well as his. For example, five years ago, my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. We told the surgeon and oncologist that we wanted to be sure that we could reach them personally with important questions throughout the lengthy course of treatment. Realizing that they were very busy, we assured them the direct contacts would be about only serious matters. Both gave us their personal cell-phone numbers, and one gave us his home number. We contacted them several times on those private lines, and they responded promptly and personally. If your doctor won’t do this, ask how to reach an on-call physician 24/7.


Sure this sounds like a bribe or some type of subversive ploy, but bringing the doctor (and his staff) a small gift or offering helps to create friendships. A friend of mine who started bringing cookies to her doctor appointments says she now gets quicker appointments and faster responses, and the doctor spends more time with her. Insider tip: “Gifts” can take many forms. I often bring my doctor articles I have seen online about bicycling (an activity I know he likes). A friend of mine brought his golf-loving doctor a box of fancy golf balls that he won at a raffle. Little things can make a big difference in opening the lines of communication.


If your doctor is not responding well to your concerns—or seems too detached—talk about it with his nurse. Knowing him well, she can communicate this to the doctor “professional-to-professional.” And he will likely be much more responsive to you. Be prepared: If the nurse says that’s just the way he is, think seriously about switching doctors. The core of a good patient/doctor relationship is communication. Remember, it’s your health that’s at stake, and it’s your doctor’s job to take care of you.