Communicating with Your Doctor: Get in the Driver’s Seat

In the 1960s, women were demanding their rights – in the boardroom, in the bedroom and also in medicine. Pushing back on the paternalistic power structure of the time, women’s health care advocates and consumer groups wanted transparency in the doctor/patient relationships and to be able to participate in the type of health care they were receiving.

Today, patients’ rights are very much a part of women’s health care. But, with those advancements, we also have a health care system that is sometimes overburdened and pushed to capacity with physicians that are harried and distracted, struggling to keep up with growing demands on their time. All of which can make communicating with your doctor seem like an impossible task at times.

Even so, it is your health and it’s important that you know how to communicate effectively with your physician. Be pro-active with these communication tips so that you can make the best use of your time with your doctor.

Before Your Appointment Write Down Your Symptoms or Any Questions You May Have

It’s always a good idea to take some time before your appointment to write down your symptoms and any questions you may have. Nothing is more frustrating than wanting to ask a specific question or talk about a symptom you’ve been experiencing and then forgetting it when your doctor comes rushing in.

Keep a tablet and pencil handy in the days leading up to your appointment. When something crosses your mind, jot it down. On the day of your appointment, take a few minutes to organize the information. Put your questions in order of priority so that you will get the most important ones answered first and take the list with you. Remember the old adage “there is never a stupid question.” If it matters to you, it’s worth asking.

Let the Nurse Know You Have Specific Questions if You are Not Asked

When the nurse comes in to gather information for the doctor, be thorough in explaining your symptoms . What may seem insignificant could be a defining piece of information when it comes to a correct diagnosis. Do not be afraid to read your list if necessary.

The nurse should also ask you at that time if you have any questions. If not, let them know that you do. Very often, nurses are able to answer questions. However, as a patient; you have a right to speak directly with your physician . If you would rather not speak with the nurse, say so and it can be noted on your chart that you have questions for the doctor.

Do Not Assume Anything

The days of the neighborhood family physician that knows your mother, knows your grandmother and perhaps even attended the bar mitzvah of your younger siblings are over.

So, unless you have a long history with your physician, do not assume he or she remembers all of the details of your medical history. Be prepared to refresh his or her memory about your case if necessary, and inform them of any changes in your health history, especially if you are in a follow-up appointment.

Repeat Back What You Have Heard and Clarify if Necessary

Doctors are human, which means that some are better communicators than others. After you’ve seen your physician and he or she gives you a diagnosis and treatment instructions, repeat back what you have heard to make sure you understood properly. Do not be afraid to ask for clarification if you are confused.

It is vital that you leave their office with a good understanding of what you have been told and what you need to do regarding your treatment. This is particularly vital when it comes to medication.

Be Pro-Active and Follow-Up

Any necessary follow-up on your appointment is as important as the original visit itself. If there were tests or blood work done, for example, or if you are still not satisfied with what your have been told regarding your diagnosis, follow-up.

Call the office and ask for the results on your tests and for clarification on anything you do not understand. Remember: being assertive and pro-active is not rude. In fact, your doctor will very likely appreciate that you are taking responsibility for your healthcare. Not only will you be easing the burden of his or her daily load, but you will also insure that you are getting the best care possible for yourself as well.


Annas, George J. (2004). The Rights of Patients: The Authoritative ACLU Guide to the Rights of Patients. New York: New York University Press.

Van Servellen, Gwen. (2009). Communication Skills for the Health Care Professional: concepts, practice and evidence. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett Publishing, LLC.

Communicating with Your Doctor. March 28, 2011. UCSF Health. org. March 28, 2011.