Tips to Improve Communication With Your Doctor
Good communication is the key to working well with your doctor and getting the best care.
You may have heard that good communication is a key to a good relationship. The same is true of your relationship with your doctor. You are a team. And the better you communicate, the better you can work together toward improving your health.
Your doctor and you: a team of experts
Doctors are experts on health and disease. But you’re an expert on yourself – on your own history and your own feelings and beliefs about what’s best for you.
Talking with your doctor – sharing your expertise – gives them the information they need to help you better. And asking questions is important, too. Not only do answers to your questions better equip you to manage your care, but each question you ask lets your doctor know what matters to you.
Cutting through the noise to clearer communication
Knowing it’s important to communicate with your doctor doesn’t mean it’s always easy. Maybe you’re uncomfortable and don’t feel well. Maybe you have to wear a breezy gown under fluorescent lights. Maybe your doctor uses medical terms like “onychocryptosis” instead of saying “ingrown toenail.” Maybe this is your first visit, or you have other things on your mind. Any number of situations can make communication tricky.
To cut through the noise and work as a team, you may need to take a more active role in your health care. Here are some communication tips to help. See what works best for you.
Tips on preparing for your visit
Sometimes while visiting with your doctor, it may be difficult to remember everything you wanted to say or ask. Or remember information that may be useful to your doctor. Preparing ahead of time may help.
Jot down your questions. Write down any questions or concerns you have ahead of time and bring them to your appointment. It can be helpful to start with what you think is most important and end with your least important questions.
Keep a symptoms journal. Note the symptoms you’re having, including any changes in your sleep, weight or energy level. Track when your symptoms happen, for how long and if anything seems to make them worse or better. This is all useful info for your doctor.
List treatments and medications. Make a list of any treatments you’ve tried and medications you take. Be sure to include any over-the-counter medicines, supplements, herbs or vitamins. This info helps your doctor avoid prescribing medications that may interact poorly with what you’re currently taking.
Ask someone to come with you. If a friend or family member comes to the appointment with you, they may be able to help you understand or remember what your doctor says.
Tips on talking with your doctor
As you talk with your doctor, here are a few communication tips to help you make the most of this valuable time.
Share the questions and notes you prepared. You can use them to describe your symptoms to your doctor or discuss your concerns. Sometimes talking about symptoms can feel like complaining, but you can be confident it’s not. It’s important your doctor knows exactly how you’re feeling.
Talk about your lifestyle. Knowing your eating habits, how active you are and how you like to spend your time can help your doctor suggest lifestyle changes that may improve your health or even help prevent disease.
Take notes during the visit. Either take notes yourself or have your family member or friend take them for you. Your notes can help you both remember what the doctor said and manage your care moving forward.
Listen carefully. Answer your doctor’s questions as accurately as you can. And if you’re uncertain about something they’ve said or asked, ask follow-up questions to help you get clarity.
Be honest. Don’t just tell your doctor what you think they want to hear. For example, if you’re having trouble getting enough exercise or sticking to your medication routine, talk about it. Being candid about sensitive subjects or even about the appointment itself can help your doctor suggest what’s right for you.
Tips on asking questions
Asking questions is one of the best ways to communicate with your doctor. Preparing questions ahead of time can help. But ask questions that come up during your visit, too. If you don't understand something, ask your doctor to explain it.
Here are some of the types of questions you can ask, depending on your situation:
If your doctor prescribes a medication, ask:
- What is the name of the medication?
- What is it for? What does it treat and how?
- When and how do I take it? For example, do I take it in the morning? Should I take it with food?
- What side effects should I watch for?
- How will it interact with other medications I am taking?
- What should I do if I miss a dose?
- How long will I need to take it?
- Is this brand name medication? If so, is there a generic version?
- Is there a cheaper medication that might work as well?
If your doctor wants you to have a test, ask:
- Why do I need this test?
- How is the test done?
- How do I prepare for the test?
- Who will perform the test?
- Does the test have any risks?
- When will I get the results?
If your doctor wants you to have surgery, ask:
- Why do I need this surgery?
- What are the risks and benefits?
- Do I have other treatment options?
- Who will do the surgery?
- Will I need to stay in the hospital? If so, for how long?
- How long will it take to recover?
- Will someone need to drive me home afterward?
- How much will it cost?
Tips on the end of the appointment and beyond
At the end of your appointment, try explaining back to your doctor what you’ve talked about. Summarizing what you’ve discussed is a good way to understand and remember what you’ve learned. And it can be helpful to make sure you’re both on the same page.
Just because your appointment is over, it doesn’t mean your partnership is. Good communication is still important even after your scheduled visit. You may realize later that you have more questions. If so, call or email your doctor. Also, let them know if your symptoms change or you’re having trouble with their instructions. Even between visits, your doctor is still part of your team, working with you to improve your health. So, keep communicating.
By Mary Small, Contributing Writer
Michael Phillips, Contributing Writer
Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. Be more engaged in your healthcare. Accessed April 7, 2022.
Familydoctor.org. Getting the most out of your doctor appointment. Accessed April 7, 2022.
National Institute on Aging. Five ways to get the most out of your doctor’s visit. Accessed April 7, 2022.
National Institute on Aging. What do I need to tell the doctor? Accessed April 7, 2022.
Last Updated: April 12, 2022