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Improving the Doctor-Patient Relationship: Top Tips from a Real Woman

Posted Jan 11 2009 5:21pm
Have you ever visited a doctor's office to discuss a diagnosis or some treament options, only to have your brain ambushed by fear or confusion?
Once I read Sheryl's advice to women who are undergoing breast cancer diagnosis and treatment, I got connected to my own vulnerabilities in speaking to "the doctor".
It absolutely mirrors the top three mistakes women make when speaking with doctors, regardless of how educated we might be!

In Sharon's voice, here's what she has to tell us from her experience as a breast cancer survivor:
Below, I offer some tips garnered from various sources, including the excellent information offered by Dr. Marisa Weiss, president and founder of, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office on Women's Health ( ) and

1. Write down questions or issues ahead of time. Don't forget to prioritize these. Many of us tend to save the most important question for last. When the doctor has one foot out the door is not the right time to ask any question, much less your most important one.

2. It it's a diagnostic visit, come prepared with a detailed description of your symptoms. Note when the problem began, how it makes you feel, what sets it off or triggers it and what works/doesn't work to make you feel better.

3. Bring a list of your medications and dosages. Include both prescription and over-the-counter medications, as well as vitamins, herbs and any other supplements. Make sure you also understand the implications of any medications your doctor prescribes: what to do if you miss a dose; if there are any foods, drugs or activities that you should avoid while taking the medication; if there is a generic brand of the drug you can use; what side effects to expect.

4. Ask for support materials. If your doctor is discussing things like treatment options, things can get pretty complicated and confusing. Many times, there are pamphlets you can take home. Ask the doctor about reliable Web sites, too; there's a wealth of information out there. Remember, the more information you have—assuming it's reliable and current—the more able you are to participate in your treatment and understand your condition.

5. Don't be afraid to ask questions or ask for clarification. A study from the University of Washington found that doctors rarely (only 1.5 percent of the time) ask patients whether they understand what was discussed during an appointment. So it's important to be your own advocate and make sure you understand everything. This will avoid unnecessary worry and follow-up phone calls to your doctor. It doesn't hurt to say something like, "So, if I understand correctly, you are telling me XXXX" and reiterate what your understanding of the conversation is.

6. Check ahead to make sure the doctor has your test results and/or reports from other labs or doctors. This gives you the opportunity to discuss those results in person, rather than over a rushed phone call (if you're lucky enough to even get your doctor on the phone).

7. Bring a trusted friend or family member with you. In the beginning, I rarely went to a visit without my husband. Thankfully, he was able to adjust his schedule to accommodate me. The few times he couldn't, my mother or a close friend accompanied me. Another set of ears is always helpful. Many times, as a patient, you may be too consumed with worry or fright to fully comprehend what the doctor is saying. And sometimes another person thinks of questions to ask that would not even occur to you. A tape recorder (with your doctor's OK, of course) can also serve as a backup for you, as will a pad of paper to jot down some notes.

8. And lastly, there are a couple more things I have experienced that I'd like to include.
- Make sure you find out how to reach your doctor between visits. Some doctors might use e-mail; others have a designated time of day for returning calls. You may even be able to talk to a nurse to get the information you need.

- Keep a folder with copies of your test results (yes, you are entitled to this information). With copies in hand, I could share them with my internist, if need be, or just feel secure knowing that I had a stack of papers that conferred my continued good health.
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