Talking to Your Doctor

Patient talking to a doctor

Talking to your doctor can sometimes feel like a challenge. Perhaps it feels like he or she is in a rush, and doesn’t have time to talk to you. Maybe you're embarrassed about a symptom, or don't understand instructions for a new drug regimen. Perhaps you've even seen another doctor or nurse making an error or treating a patient with disrespect. 

No matter what's holding you back, it's critical that you have an open, honest relationship with your doctor. Better communication means better outcomes, fewer errors, and a quicker recovery.


Demand the best care

Navigating the world of health care is no easy feat, but your physicians and nurses have a responsibility to help guide you along the way. That means being responsive to your questions and concerns, and explaining concepts in terms you can understand.

Don't assume that every treatment or test is right for you. Be sure to ask your doctor if that scan or prescription is really necessary, or if it's better to just wait and see. Ask to collaborate on a treatment plan that is tailored to your wants and needs, and see if your doctor will share their notes with you. 

If you're preparing for surgery, make sure that your physician has a great track record. Ask her how many procedures she typically performs in a year, and who will be assisting her during the procedure.

If you're getting ready to give birth, ask your doctor if the hospital has the right facilities to handle a high-risk birth, and find out his own individual rate of C-sections.


Make your care experience as safe as possible

Be prepared. Before your visit, think about and write down any questions you may have. Ask questions when you are unsure of what you are being told, or when something unexpected happens. For example, if you aren’t sure what kind of medication you’re being given, try saying:

“I know you care about safety. And it’s important to me to know what I’m taking. What kind of medication are you giving me? What is this medication for?”

Be alert and say something if you're worried about something. For example, make sure each and every person caring for you washes their hands before touching you. Here’s one way to bring this up:

“I may have missed this, but did you wash your hands?”


Talking with your doctor about medical errors

Talking to your doctor about medical errors can be difficult. It is important to be sensitive yet assertive. Try to discuss medical errors at the beginning of the doctor-patient relationship. For general information, gently ask what errors your doctor may have made in the past, what happened to the patient, and what the doctor learned from the experience. If you need to talk to your doctor about errors made in your care:

  • Ask what happened. Dig deeper to get an understanding of what really went wrong and why.

  • Ask what the doctors, nurses, and hospital are doing to keep the error from happening again.

  • If you are able, ask to participate in the investigation of the incident, and work with the team that develops solutions to keep it from happening again.

  • Expect an honest apology and if you can, accept it.

Seek support together. Medically Induced Trauma Support Services (MITSS) is an organization founded to assist in healing the relationship between clinicians and patients who have experienced an error together. MITSS also provides insights to the public to prevent similar errors from happening.


What is a patient advocate and why should I have one?

When you are a patient, you’re not on top of your game. It is a good idea to have a designated person who can help you manage your care. A patient or health care advocate watches out for you while you are in the hospital. This allows you to focus on recovering and reduces the stress felt by your family members, allowing them to offer their full support. Talk to your doctor to see if your hospital has a patient advocate.


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