How to Talk to Doctors so Doctors Will Listen

As listeners, doctors sometimes get a bad rap. Along with waiting times and scheduling difficulties, not listening well enough is one of patients’ top complaints.

Research has shown that doctors jump in to ask questions or redirect the conversation after, on average, 11 seconds of patient input. The intention is often to serve patients: Doctors spend much of their day trying to catch up to their own schedule—in order to address that other top complaint, waiting times.

Fortunately, it’s a problem that doctors are keen to remedy. They understand that great communication between doctors and patients is one of the most important factors in patient health. But how do you talk to your doctor if you want to be better heard?

Make a List

Take time before your visit to make a list of concerns and questions you may have about your overall health and specific issues you’ve been experiencing. Then, put those concerns and questions in order from most important to least. Maybe you’ll get through them all, and maybe you won’t. If you start with the biggest issue first, you’ll at least make the most of the time you have.

If you aren’t able to get to everything on your list, ask whether you can talk by phone, email via your patient portal, or arrange for a nurse to address some of your questions.

Tell Your Story (and Practice Beforehand)

Your doctor doesn’t diagnose based on a set of symptoms, but from a sense of how those symptoms occurred over time—essentially from the story of your illness. But telling your story to your doctor effectively takes planning. According to Leana Wen, co-author of “When Doctors Don’t Listen: How to Avoid Misdiagnoses and Unnecessary Tests,” the three most important factors are:

  • Tell it in order, from when you first noticed something was wrong to the present moment.
  • Give context: Instead of just saying the pain is bad, say, “I haven’t been able to go to work for three days.”
  • Practice telling it: You might feel silly, but it’ll be worth it when the time comes.

Be Direct

This one can be tough, especially since the patient role often feels like a vulnerable one. Remind yourself that, one way or another, you’re paying for this—you should make sure you get the care you came for. And direct doesn’t need to mean rude. It can be as simple as saying, “Excuse me, but I don’t feel like my concerns have been addressed.”

Bring a Friend or Family Member

Sometimes having a second set of ears and a neutral party can be helpful. A friend can say the things you might be embarrassed to and remind you of things you might have forgotten. Just make sure you bring a person who’s actually helpful in these situations—not someone who tends to be distracting or tries to run the show.

Be Honest

When you lie to your doctor, you’re only hurting yourself. You may feel ashamed of your unhealthy habits and behaviors, but it’s nothing your doctor hasn’t seen or heard before.

Your doctor needs to know about all of your habits and behaviors in order to make the best-informed decisions about your care and to avoid treatment recommendations that might be unsafe or ineffective. Doctor-patient confidentiality means your doctor can’t share anything you tell him or her with a few exceptions where a doctor’s silence might put the patient or someone else in danger.

Sum Up What You Heard

At the end of your appointment, summarize what you’re taking away from the visit: what you heard, any steps you’re supposed to take, and when you’d like to follow up. It’s also the perfect opportunity to bring up any unanswered issues you’d like to address. This lets your doctor know that you’ve been listening, and helps confirm that the time has been well spent—which should work in your favor as the doctor/patient relationship continues. After all, no one likes to spend precious time on someone who isn’t listening.

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