Communicating with Doctors Effectively

written by Dana Herron


Communicating with doctors can be difficult.

My 83-year-old mom trusts her doctor explicitly. Most people her age do. The doctors are experts in their field and will tell you what you need to know about any medical conditions and helpful resources that may be available for you. Or will they?

In his article “Letting Go: What Should Medicine Do When it Can’t Save Your Life?”, published in The New Yorker in August, 2010, Dr. Atul Gawande raises awareness of how the healthcare industry has relinquished its role as advisor and opted instead for a less personal relationship with the patient and family, based on science and technological advances in medicine. Even when the patient will never benefit from these medical interventions, Dr. Gawande says, “In the past few decades, medical science has rendered obsolete centuries of experience, tradition, and language about our mortality, and created a new difficulty for mankind: how to die.”

More than facing an end-of-life crisis, Dr. Gawande also addresses how the medical profession has stopped being an advisor and a trusted partner to improve quality of life when medical issues pose challenges. After finding out – often too late to be of any benefit – about community resources and healthcare options that might aid a patient and caregivers, family members are often left asking themselves, “Why didn’t the doctor tell us about this?” As Dr. Gawande suggests, the medical profession today often lacks an interpersonal relationship with a patient and family members, and the doctor may not broach certain topics unless a patient asks.

Despite the many healthcare options available for seniors, most people aren’t aware of resources that are appropriate for their loved ones, what the differences are among types of services, or how to go about finding resources to help. A multitude of services exist, including in-home care, home health services, physical therapy, rehab services, adult day care services, and hospice/palliative care. All these options can be very confusing for people who aren’t familiar with what each service provides.

The best course of action to ensure your loved ones receive appropriate care and that family members are aware of healthcare resources is to gather information. Be proactive! Don’t wait for the doctor to begin the conversation about medical conditions and healthcare needs. If you don’t ask, or if your loved one always tells the doctor that everything is fine, the doctor may never recommend options for support.

Consider these tips to start a dialogue with your loved one’s doctor.

  • If possible, visit the doctor with your loved one so the physician and his staff are familiar with you and know that your loved one values your involvement in his or her healthcare.
  • Ask the doctor about your loved one’s conditions, the typical progress of any diseases, and the prognosis.
  • Ask the doctor if there are resources in your community to assist with providing care. Some communities have voucher programs, for instance, to help provide support for families caring for loved ones with Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Talk to the nursing staff at the doctor’s office – they may know more about community resources than the doctor knows.
  • Ask the doctor to explain the difference between types of care that he or she suggests.
  • If the doctor recommends a particular service provider or agency, ask the doctor why he or she prefers that provider.
  • Ask your loved one to share with you and your doctor what his or her wishes are for any treatment. Are there certain treatments your loved one wants or doesn’t want? If your loved one has a legal document that specifies his or her wishes, make sure the doctor has a copy.
  • Ask the doctor if there are caregiver support groups that might benefit you as a caregiver.
  • If you are unsure about something the doctor has recommended or explained, ask more questions until you understand completely.
  • Ask the doctor if there are any questions you should be asking but haven’t asked yet.

Using these tips can guide the patient-physician relationship to one centered around your loved one’s best quality of life and a more interpersonal relationship where your loved one’s doctor recognizes you as a partner in your loved one’s care. This line of questioning while visiting the doctor’s office with your loved one may make your loved one feel more comfortable in asking questions as well. Together, you’ll be able to research and plan for the best care possible.

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