Sometimes my work as a family doctor the days don’t always go as expected. On a busy day, I feel like I’ll never catch up, and it’s frustrating that I can’t give adequate time to each individual patient. One afternoon not long ago, I was feeling unusually tired. I looked down at my schedule and saw that my last patient was Beth, a young mother with a seven-year-old son. I thought to myself – Let’s hope this one is just a simple sore throat!
“So what brings you in today?” I asked, after a brief greeting.
“Well, I’m worried about Jimmy”, said Beth anxiously. “He’s getting into trouble at school a lot, and his teachers say he’s not paying attention. Sometimes he has stomachaches. I’m not sure what to do… Also, I’m wondering if you could just check his foot, I think he’s developed a plantar wart.”
I couldn’t help letting out a sigh. “Well, let’s just focus on the main problem,” I say. “What more information can you give me? Have you got his latest report card? Any specific comments from the teacher?”
Beth shook her head. She tried to explain more about her concerns about Jimmy, but she sensed that I was not listening closely, and she tripped over her words. Finally, I said in a voice edged with irritation, “There’s not much I can do in this short appointment. This is a complicated issue. Can you re-book for another time?”
After Beth and Jimmy left the office, I felt very guilty for brushing her off that way. I knew that she was not happy with the appointment, and neither was I. We had a communication problem, aggravated by time constraints. Unfortunately, such problems are all too common between family doctors and their patients and with a little teamwork can get the critical doctor-patient relationship back on track.
Like any healthy relationship, good communication is fundamental and that applies to the doctor-patient relationship as well. When that vital link of understanding is broken between doctor and patient, a cascade of negative consequences can result. If the patient hasn’t been able to fully explain his or her symptoms, an incorrect diagnosis might be made. If the doctor hasn’t clearly communicated his or her assessment of the problem, the treatment plan might fail. Poor communication inevitably leads to dissatisfaction for both doctor and patient.
There are ten quick tips to communicate better with your family doctor, and to make your office visit more effective:
1. If you are seeing the doctor for a complicated issue (like Jimmy’s problem) ask the receptionist to book you a longer appointment.
2. Prepare what you’re going to say ahead of time, and keep it concise and focused.
3. If you’ve done some research on the Internet about your problem and want to share it with your doctor, make sure you use reputable sites to get that information. Doctors get frustrated when patients bring in reams of information of dubious value.
4. Avoid coming into the doctor’s office with a list of unrelated problems – focus on your main concern for that visit.
5. If you are going in to get results of an important test, bring a friend or relative with you. Sometimes it can be hard to remember what the doctor has said, especially when the topic is emotionally laden.
6. If you have a particular worry about a symptom (for example, Could this be cancer?), express that concern to the doctor.
7. If the doctor advises a treatment you don’t feel comfortable with, explain your reasons, and see if an alternative approach would be possible.
8. Keep your follow up appointment, and at that time let the doctor know how well (or not) the treatment has worked.
9. If you’re not happy with the service you’re getting, communicate this clearly but politely, using “I” statements. (for example, “I feel concerned about how long it took to receive these test results.”)
10. If you’re happy with the service you’re getting from your doctor, a word of thanks or a card is always appreciated. Doctors are human too!
Improving communication requires work on the part of both the doctor and the patient. Thinking back on this appointment with Beth and Jimmy, I realized my faults: I was tired and also frustrated because the issue was complex and difficult to address during a short appointment. Yet still, I could have done a better job at communicating with compassion. On Beth’s part, she could have prepared for this appointment by thinking ahead about what information might be useful for the doctor. Working together, patients and family doctors can form great partnerships if they keep communication at the forefront of their relationship.
Dr. Karen Trollope-Kumar is a family physician and author of Cloud Messenger: Love and Loss in the Indian Himalayas. For more information, please visit her website.