Tips for talking to your doctor


Talking to your doctor can be easy and helpful, or frustrating at best. Have you ever felt excited to be talking to your doctor about a medical concern, only to leave feeling like the whole thing was a grueling event?

You may wait a long, long time in the waiting room and, just when you think you’ll be talking to your doctor with his or her undivided attention, he gets distracted. It’s less like talking to your doctor and more like talking to your doctor while he looks at his computer. In the age of medical advances, continually changing insurance regulations, and paperless medical records, something seems to have been lost in the relationship between the patient and the doctor. Physicians and their staff are hurried and need to get in and out of the exam room as soon as possible in many cases.

This scenario can become even more challenging to caregivers as they try to assist spouses and parents or other family members. Not only may your loved one tell the doctor that everything is “just fine,” but you may also experience added challenges with your loved one’s declining health and increasing confusion or confidence in talking with and understanding the doctor. After all, most of our elders trust their physicians explicitly because they respect the educational process and the role of the doctor. With that in mind, what’s the best way you, as a caregiver, can talk to the doctor? How can you build a more patient-centered experience to benefit your loved one? How can you be sure that the doctor tells you about all the options and choices your loved one may need to consider?

Several years ago, in his article “Letting Go: What Should Medicine Do When it Can’t Save Your Life?”, Dr. Atul Gawande described the changing interaction between doctors and patients (The New Yorker, August 2010). He is talking about life-threatening situations when he says, “In the past few decades, medical science has rendered obsolete centuries of experience, tradition, and language about our mortality, and created a new difficulty for mankind: how to die.” The same holds true, however, for situations that are not life-threatening. Many doctors seem to have a stronger focus on medical advances – tests, labs, medications – than on finding out who the patient is and what the patient wants. In short, some doctors have stopped having truly meaningful relationships with their patients and have become peddlers of medical science.

If seniors rely on their trust of a doctor, they may be doing themselves a disservice in the long run if they don’t have a caregiver or family member to advocate on their behalf. So many options are available to help seniors who have medical conditions or need assistance with daily activities, but those options may never be discussed during a typical doctor’s appointment unless the patient brings up the topic. The choices may be confusing, and, sometimes, patients and their caregivers may not know what to ask, so they remain silent and wait for the doctor to make recommendations.

Be proactive! Don’t wait for the doctor to bring up the subject of healthcare options. Often, families find out too late about services and resources that might have helped them if they had they known about those resources earlier. These families wonder why the physician never told them about specific services.

The 10 tips below will help you be a strong advocate for your loved one. These tactics can start a conversation that keeps your loved one’s needs and desires at the forefront of any plan for care.

  • Be a familiar face. When your loved one visits the doctor, tag along so the doctor and the office staff know you. Make sure they have your loved one’s permission to talk with you if needed.
  • If your loved one has particular conditions or illnesses, be sure you ask the doctor to explain these diagnoses, the expected progression of any illnesses, and the prognosis.
  • Find out if the physician’s office is aware of any community resources that might help you and your loved one. Some communities have special programs, for instance, to help provide support for families caring for loved ones with Alzheimer’s disease. Meals on Wheels and other services may be helpful.
  • Make a point to talk with the nurses and other staff as well as the doctor. Sometimes, the staff may know more about different community resources and options for care and often can provide you with pamphlets or brochures for these services.
  • Ask questions if the doctor suggests a specific type of care or service. Find out why the doctor is making this specific recommendation. If you or your loved one is confused by any of the information the doctor gives you, ask the doctor to explain again.
  • Do you know what kind of treatments or care your loved one wants or doesn’t want? Does the doctor know? Find out what your loved one wants, and make sure the doctor has a copy of any legal documents specifying your loved one’s wishes (a living will, advance directive).
  • Remember: you have choices. If the doctor does suggest a particular service provider or agency, you can always ask for more than one recommendation and interview the agencies prior to contracting with any specific company.
  • Ask if the doctor or staff can recommend any local caregiver support groups or educational materials that would be helpful to you as a caregiver.
  • Don’t assume that your loved one understands everything the doctor says. If you think your loved one may not have understood fully any of the information discussed about health, medications, and recommended plan of care, ask questions until you are confident and comfortable with your loved one’s understanding of the situation.
  • You’ll never remember everything you want to ask, so always be ready to ask a catch-all question. Simply ask the doctor if other patients have good questions that you haven’t thought to ask or if the doctor is aware of issues you might not have thought about, but need to know.

By using this strategy, you can help turn a grueling doctor’s appointment into a more pleasant and informative experience. The goal is to keep your loved one’s best quality of life at the forefront of any discussion. Doing so will let the doctor and staff know you are a strong advocate and partner in your loved one’s care. As an added benefit, when your loved one sees that you are asking questions, he or she may gain confidence in asking questions and taking a more active role in finding healthcare solutions. Together, you’ll be able to get the best care possible.