See if this sounds familiar: You have a medical appointment. You check in at the front desk on time and take a seat. You wait for quite a long time, and then finally your name is called. You go to the exam room, and the nurse comes in, asks a few questions, and takes your blood pressure. You wait some more. The doctor comes in, asks a few more questions, writes a prescription, and is gone. You leave the office with more questions than answers. You aren’t quite satisfied.
Patient-physician communication is very important for successful healing. An analysis from The Joint Commission, a nonprofit that accredits US healthcare organizations, faulted “inadequate communication”—both between physicians and between patients and their doctors—in more than 70 percent of sentinel events, or adverse health outcomes not related to the natural course of a patient’s illness. This means that if we can improve the communication and effectiveness of the visit to a physician, there is a greater chance for a positive outcome.
What can a patient do?
As a patient, you are not powerless when it comes to effective communication in the exam room and after you leave. There are things you can (and should) do to ensure your voice is heard and your concerns are addressed.
Come prepared. Know what you intend to talk about before you arrive for your appointment. Write down your concerns and questions, and make them specific. The more pointed your questions are, the more direct answers you’ll get.
Prioritize your concerns. Know that your doctor may not have time to answer all 50 of your questions, so ask them in order of importance. “When a patient prioritizes their concerns, it tells me they have very specific health interests and they understand we’re both working with limited resources,” says Dr. Nirmal Joshi, chief medical officer for Pinnacle Health System. “It also tells me you respect my time and allows us to focus on what concerns you most about your medical situation.”
Don’t be afraid to ask for another appointment. Ultimately, you want all of your concerns addressed with ample time and attention. So rather than trying to rush through your list of questions, if you don’t finish, ask for a follow-up appointment.
Dr. Joshi says it’s not uncommon for patients to remember something they wanted to talk about as the doctor is getting ready to leave the room. In that situation, the doctor has a choice—address the concern quickly, possibly sacrificing good clinical care, or set up another opportunity to discuss the issue. As a patient, you can take the reins by requesting a follow-up.
Be willing to communicate outside the exam room. “Never underestimate the power of communication that’s not necessarily face-to-face,” says Dr. Joshi, who recommends patients ask their doctors whether they are willing to email. “Many physicians love that. I personally love that. That freedom allows me to instantaneously communicate with patients when I have the time for them.”
Email or communication through an online patient portal or telephone number is particularly useful when a face-to-face appointment has already occurred and you have questions about what was discussed or your treatment instructions.
Bring someone with you. “If the person getting care happens to be elderly or is otherwise incapable of asking questions in an assertive way, I strongly advise them to bring someone along,” Dr. Joshi says.
When a caring son or daughter is present, for instance, Dr. Joshi says the expectations are very high, and he is most likely to respond in kind. In other words, the added person can serve as a medical advocate for the patient who may otherwise just accept that “doctor knows best.”
The bottom line: Your time with your doctor is limited, so making every moment count is crucial. Though it may seem like 15 minutes can’t possibly be enough, learning to use these precious moments wisely will help you get the most out of each appointment.
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