Communicating With Your Health Care Team

How you communicate with your doctor is an important part of how you manage your healthcare team.  It can make a significant difference in your relationship and more importantly in the quality of your medical care.

It is best to talk with your doctor without becoming overly emotional.  Don’t ever become melodramatic, if you do your doctor will stop listening carefully to you.  Doctors are at their best when you deal with them in a rational, non-emotional manner.

Stay focused in your communications by staying on track and sharing your medical concerns.  Going off on tangents and telling unrelated stories (like your recent vacation or that your child was just married) will not get you the answers you need and will eat up the precious limited time allotted to your office visit.

Make an effort to learn about your cancer, including some cancer-related jargon.  If you can use some basic medical terminology with your doctor, you might find that your doctor not only listens more carefully but also better understands your concerns.

Remember, the doctor is there to make things better for you.  They cannot do this if you are not honest or you hold back any information or concerns, no matter the reason.  You must share all your symptoms, any bad habits you might have, side effects that you experience from a medication or the cancer itself and information about medications that you have not been completely compliant about taking as directed.

It is also important that you not hold back information about any pain you might be experiencing. There is never a reason to “grin and bear it,” not letting your doctor know does not make you a superman or superwomen, it makes you foolish and short sighted.  Talking about your pain is not complaining, and it does not mean that you are a bad patient or a hypochondriac.  It means that you are a patient in pain.

Make sure that your doctor knows and understands what sideeffects you are willing to tolerate and which ones are not acceptable to you.  Be clear with the doctor about this issue.

Your being honest with your doctor even extends to sharing things about your health that scare you; always let your doctor know if you feel scared. It’s not easy for any of us to feel vulnerable and admit it, but not sharing makes it worse! If you’re scared, tell your doctor. Often our imagination is worse than the reality, especially as we go into the unknown world of cancer.

Embarrassment about a problem should never stop you from sharing a symptom or concern with your doctor.  Most likely, the doctor has heard it before from others. Their job and skills are designed to help you rid yourself of issues, including those that embarrass.  If you do not feel adequately comfortable with your doctor to be able to share something that is embarrassing discuss that as a topic or decide that perhaps this isn’t the doctor for you.  If that is the case, find a new doctor whom you do trust sufficiently to share those issues.

Experience has also shown us that finding a doctor that speaks your language enhances communication.  Good communication is essential for good medical care, so having a doctor that understands the nuances of your language can be helpful. If you do not speak the same language as your doctor request an interpreter, many hospitals will provide one free of charge.  An alternative, but not a great one, is to bring a family member to interpret, but experience tells us that this solution is not always best as family members can misinterpret what the doctor is saying or color your issues by their own emotional responses.  After all, your cancer also affects them.

Increasingly financial concerns enter into cancer treatment.  The cost of our medications, the loss of work and the need to pay for extra living assistance has become burdensome.  If you find that you do have financial concerns that affect your treatment let your doctors know.  Sometimes there are less expensive alternatives that they can offer or financial assistance programs you might qualify for to assist with the costs of the medications you are taking.  Let the doctor and their staff know about your situation; they may be able to help.

Don’t ever worry you are bothering the doctor with questions or concerns. As we have already said, doctors are there to serve you.  They cannot do their job if you do not ask your questions and be honest with them about everything.  Find the courage to speak up, ask questions, be honest about your symptoms and suppress the fear of burdening the doctor. 

A patient best practice includes making a list of your concerns and questions before your appointment.  Right before going into the examining room prioritize your concerns and raise the most important ones as the meeting starts.  There is research that shows that doctors tend to hear the first few issues and jump to conclusions without actually giving adequate attention to the concerns that are raised later on in the meeting.

We all can feel a little intimidated when we go to a see a doctor, but experience shows us time and time again that if you talk with your doctor in a rational and focused fashion; are honest with feelings and concerns you can be confident that you will get the best care and advice.

If you are feeling concerned about the value of your thoughts or questions, think of it this way. When medical students (your doctor when they were younger) was in medical school, and when they were working as young residents they are taught to relay information to their patients with confidence, even if they didn’t feel it. You can use the same method. Structure your communication to be logical and deliver it confidently.  Like the residents, you will be respected, and your questions and your concerns will be heard.

Approach your doctor appointments as if it were a regular business meeting because it is one.  If it helps you feel more confident, dress as if it is a business meeting, this will balance the scale between your doctor who will be dressed in business attire.

The other skill that you will need to develop is the ability to listen.  Even the medically savvy, take-charge patient needs to stay open to what the doctor and their medical staff have to say about their health status, diagnosis and treatment options.

As the Medical CEO of your health, it is your job to make all your personal medical decisions, but you owe it to yourself and to the physician to take in and process their opinions. You have picked them, and you are paying them for their expertise, so use it.

Allow the doctor to educate you even if you eventually decide against what they have to suggest.

As we said in Managing Your Healthcare Team, think of your doctor as a very skilled and experienced contractor for whom you are paying for a service.  Whether you self-pay or your insurance is paying the medical bill, it is still you who are paying.  You are the boss, the home owner, so demand nothing less than you would from any other contractor, but don’t forget to listen to the advice of their experience and formal education.

Communicating with and managing your health care providers is a balancing act that we all need to master.