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Health Advocate

Communicating

A quick guide to working with your care team

You may think that this subject is…well, too basic. But communicating and creating a meaningful rapport with your doctors sometimes turns out to be harder than you think. Just Google “doctor-patient relationship,” or “doctor-patient communication” and you’ll see what I mean. If it’s so easy to communicate, why are there so many studies about this?

Communicating with medical folks can be hard. For one thing, medicine comes with its own language, full of polysyllabic words and jargon. Practitioners sometimes also use a sort of shorthand for things that they’re familiar with but that we aren’t. After all, we didn’t study medicine for years and years! And most important, the way doctors communicate and make decisions has traditionally been authoritarian. Patients rarely ask questions or question authority.

But communication styles have changes over the years. Today in many medical settings things have evolved to what is called “patient-centered care.” This is the kind of care that creates a balanced exchange of information between doctors and their patients, where preferences are discussed and patients have a say in things.
It’s well documented that with this approach patients are more satisfied with their care, are more likely to stick to their treatment regimens, and can generally expect to have better outcomes.

For me, this idea of collaborating with my doctors is great. When patients understand what their choices are they can make informed decisions! But there is a concern. Can we really have a constructive discussion with our doctors when we’re not doctors? I think it’s possible. In my experience, an A-team will help you get up to speed with the most important things you need to know. As a patient, part of the bargain is to be proactive. Nowadays, it’s incredible how patients are keeping up. If you don’t believe me, just go to a Cancer Survivor’s Conference and you’ll be amazed how much patients know! They can rattle off drug names, and the details of their current regimen and it’s very impressive. The same thing happened in the 80s when people were desperately trying to survive HIV-AIDS. They learned as much as they could so they were able to stand their ground with the medical folks.

Here are some of the benefits when you communicate well with your doctor:

  • You’ll get real medical information that is relevant to you. You can ask for written explanations and instructions so you can go over everything at home. If you can’t take someone with you, bring a tape recorder and ask the doctor if you can record your meeting
  • A good conversation with your doctor can allay your fears and keep you from imagining too much. Emotionally you’ll start to feel stronger!
  • As you learn more and become better informed, you’ll be more comfortable asking questions, and your doctor will feel able to share more detailed information with you. This will help you feel like you have more control over the situation and your health in general. Ultimately you’ll become a partner with your doctor, taking an active role in your treatment
  • When you have a good rapport with your doctor, studies show that you are more likely to feel less stressed and to follow your doctors’ directions

Here’s what I like about how my A-team communicates with me:

  • They’re caring. Even though my time with them is short, they give me the impression I’m the only patient that day. They zero in on me like a laser! At first this made me nervous, and I’d chatter a lot. Now I’m real quiet so they can examine me without distraction. Before I leave, I take out a list of questions and make sure I get the answers
  • They’re good listeners. I’ve noticed they pick up on the actual phrases and words I use, as if they’re examining my words. Then they use these words to frame their answers back to me
  • They’re good explainers. They avoid medical jargon, and sometimes draw diagrams to illustrate their explanations
  • They help me weigh my options. And they’re open to negotiating a care plan. I did this with the chemo, and the doctor researched another protocol that was just as effective as the regular one. It was less severe and it took longer, but it meant I could still go to work every day and that was important to me
  • They keep all my medical records handy, and refer to them. This makes me feel my situation is unique and important. And of course, it is!
  • They give thoughtful answers. The conversation may go like this:
    “Current medical practice is trending toward this (whatever it is). However, I
    prefer this because (reason why).”
    This gives me insight into the way my
    doctors practice medicine and  reassures me that I’ve picked the right team!

  • They’re good huggers!  I guess this comes from having a relationship that extends back many years. I happen to like a hug. But some of my other doctors hold my hands when we meet, and that’s nice too

One last thing

Remember that your doctor is probably a specialist in a particular area and so you should realize that a lot of the time he or she is framing answers to you in terms of that field of expertise. For example, a surgeon is more likely to think about operating while a hematologist is more concerned about your blood counts, etc. I always bear this in mind, and weigh up the answers I get accordingly. Until next time…

Yours in good health!

Louise Becker MA
Health Advocate

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© Louise Becker 2012