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Talking to Your Healthcare Provider

Your relationship with your healthcare provider should be a partnership. Both of you have responsibilities and needs related to giving you the best possible care. How well you and your provider talk to each other is one of the most important parts of getting good healthcare. This means:

  • asking questions if your provider's explanations or instructions are not clear
  • bringing up problems or concerns even if your provider does not ask about them
  • letting your provider know when a treatment is not working
  • telling your provider about any new treatment or medicines, including home remedies, that you have tried since your last visit
  • letting your provider know about any trouble you have with the office staff and also about good experiences with the staff
  • letting your provider know about any trouble with office routines or practices, such as problems with the telephone system or leaving messages and not getting called back.

The best way to make sure the partnership works is to have good communication.

What can I do to get the most out of a visit with my healthcare provider?

Although your provider might like to talk with you at length, each patient is given a limited amount of time on the clinic schedule. When making an appointment, tell the receptionist why you are making the appointment so enough time can be planned for you to meet with your provider. To get the most out of an office visit:

  • Before your visit, make a list of things you want to talk about. During the visit, stick to the points you want to discuss.
  • Always bring a complete list of all medicines you are using, including any nonprescription medicines, herbal remedies, and other alternative therapies. Tell your provider if you are taking medicines in a different way or different amount from the prescription label.
  • Take notes during your visit.
  • Get written information from your provider to take home with you. Sometimes it helps to ask your provider to write down some things for you, like the name of a medical problem you have or how your medicine will help. Ask if there are places where you can get more information.
  • Talk to other providers on the healthcare team. Nurses, physician assistants, pharmacists, and occupational or physical therapists play an active role in your healthcare. They may be able to take more time with you than your primary care physician.
  • If you are having a serious medical problem, you may want to take a family member or friend with you to help take notes, to help you remember which questions to ask, or to remember what was said.

What questions will my provider ask and what questions should I ask?

Asking questions is the key to getting what you want from the visit. If you don't ask questions, your healthcare provider may think that you understand everything and that you don't want more information. Medical words may sound like a foreign language to you, and many providers forget to translate. Ask questions when you don't know the meaning of a word (like aneurysm, hypertension, or infarct) or when instructions are not clear (like how to take your medicines). It may help to repeat what you think your provider means in your own words and ask, "Is this correct?" If you are worried about cost, say so. Tell your provider if you cannot get a medicine because of its cost. Your provider’s staff may be able to help you find ways to pay for your medicine or other treatments you need.

Questions your provider may ask you about your symptoms:

  • What are your symptoms?
  • How long have they been going on?
  • Do you have the symptoms all the time? If not, when do you have them?
  • Are there symptoms that occur together? For example, do you have shortness of breath and chest pain when you are climbing stairs?
  • Do the symptoms affect your daily activities? Which ones? How?
  • How have you tried to treat your symptoms? Are they better or worse?

If your symptom is pain, then your provider may ask:

  • Is the pain new?
  • How you would describe the pain? Sharp, dull, burning, pressure?
  • How bad is the pain right now? At its worst or not as bad as it has been?

Questions you can ask about prevention of health problems:

  • Should I get a flu shot, pneumonia shot, tetanus shot, or other shots?
  • How often should I have tests to screen for cancer?
  • Will changing my diet or exercise habits help me?

Questions to ask about medical tests:

  • How is the test done? How should I prepare?
  • What will we know from the test?
  • How will I find out the results? How long will it take to get the results?
  • If I don't hear anything about my tests, what should I do?
  • Are there any risks or side effects?

Questions to ask about a diagnosis:

  • What may have caused this condition? Will I have it all my life?
  • How is this condition treated? What will be the long-term effects on my life?
  • How can I learn more about it?

Questions to ask about treatment:

  • When should I start treatment? How long will it last?
  • Are other treatments possible?
  • How much will the treatment cost? Will my insurance cover it?
  • Does the treatment have any risks?

Questions to ask about medicines:

  • What are the common side effects? What should I watch out for?
  • Is a generic form of a prescribed drug available and OK for me to take instead of a more expensive brand-name drug?
  • What should I do if I miss a dose?
  • Are there foods, drugs, or activities I should avoid while taking this medicine?
  • Can you prescribe pills with a double dose so I can use a pill-splitter to take one half of a pill for each dose and save money? Are there any risks doing this?

Questions to ask about changing your habits:

  • How will this change help me?
  • Do you have any reading material on this topic?
  • Are there support groups or community services that might help me?

What if it is hard to talk about some problems I'm having?

Your provider can't read your mind, so it is important for you to speak up. Your provider can give you the best care only if you say what is really going on.

  • Fight the temptation to say what you think your provider wants to hear, for example, that you smoke less or eat a healthier diet than you really do. While this is natural, it's not in your best interest.
  • You should feel comfortable enough with your provider to be able to bring up issues that may seem personal or feel embarrassing. This includes sexual, emotional, and other personal issues. For example, let your provider know if you are getting a divorce, or someone close to you has died, or you are worrying about a family member. Physical health and emotional well-being are tied together. If something is important to you, you should bring it up. Healthcare providers are used to talking about these matters and will try to ease your discomfort.
  • As you get older, it is important to understand that problems with memory, depression, sexual function, and incontinence are not normal parts of aging. Make sure that you talk with your provider about these problems if you have them.

What should I do if I have problems with talking to my provider?

Remember that your healthcare provider is there to help you. If you have any problems with the treatment you get from your provider or his or her staff, it is important to talk about it. If you feel you have repeatedly tried to work with your provider and it is not working out, you may need to contact the customer service department of your insurance company to find other providers covered by your insurance. Your health is important, so you should find the right people to work with you to take care of it.

Developed by RelayHealth.
Published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2011-06-26
Last reviewed: 2011-05-03
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
© 2011 RelayHealth and/or its affiliates. All rights reserved.
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