Heart-to-heart: Talking to Your Doctor

Are you embarrassed to ask your doctor certain questions, nervous that you’ll sound confused, or flustered by the fact that your doctor seems rushed for time or uses lots of technical language?

Regardless of the problem, it’s important for you to find a solution because medical miscommunication can hurt your health, said Barry Jacobs, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist and  Director of Behavioral Sciences at the Crozer-Keystone Family Medicine Residency Program in Springfield, Pa.

If communicating with your doctor is difficult, we’ve got some tips to help you get the answers you need. Hint: The silent treatment is never an effective cure.

Ready, set, ask!

The best way to make sure you’re following your doctor’s advice and taking your medication correctly is to use simple, direct communication. Ask a lot of questions. If you don’t understand an answer, keep asking until you do understand. Medical terms can be tough to figure out, and sometimes more explanation is needed.

“Doctors have to set a tone in which questions and discussions are welcome — then patients have to have the courage to speak up,” said Jacobs, who is also an American Heart Association volunteer.

It helps to ask the right questions. A little research before your visit will help you have a more informed discussion with your doctor. Use the Internet, but stick with reliable sources your doctor will respect.

Reliable Sources

For heart health and stroke information, visit the American Heart Association’s website, heart.org. For questions on other medical topics, check with accredited medical schools, university teaching hospitals and government sites such as the National Institutes of Health(link opens in new window), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention(link opens in new window) and the Department of Health and Human Services(link opens in new window) are also reliable.

Don't take a pile of printouts to your appointment. Organize your questions into a concise list before you get there. In turn, your doctor should make time to answer all your questions thoroughly.

And if you have an urgent question after your visit, don’t hesitate to contact your doctor.

“More and more physicians are encouraging patients to e-mail questions and concerns between medical visits,” Jacobs said. “Whatever the mode of communication, patients still need to be willing to voice doubts and confusion to work effectively.”

Learning to Ask Questions

That can be a major change for patients who aren’t used to raising concerns.

“Older patients tend to be more deferential and consequently ask fewer questions, while younger patients often approach medical visit as informed consumers,” Jacobs said. “They’re more likely to express whatever doubts they have.”

"Some ethnic groups may be less trustful of medical authority and be more skeptical about medical treatment plans," Jacobs said. "But they usually keep their reservations to themselves."

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