Communicating With Your Doctor - A Guide to Doing it Right

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Have you ever come home from a visit to your doctor wondering if you really understood your medical problem or how to take your medications? In the past, doctors were in charge of your care and you were to "follow orders." These days, patients and doctors have an equal responsibility for care. You have a right to information about your condition and treatment and the doctor has a right to an accurate accounting of your history and symptoms.

According to the National Institute on Aging, here is what you can do to communicate better with your doctor:

* Be completely honest about all of the medications you take, including over-the-counter medications and herbal preparations. If you have more than one doctor, be sure each knows about all of your medications and other treatments, since dangerous interactions among medications are possible.

* Also be honest about smoking and drinking. Doctors and nurses are accustomed to taking care of people who smoke or drink. They need to know if you have any habits that contribute to disease or interfere with treatment.

* Your doctor may question you about a topic that you consider embarrassing, such as sexuality, memory loss, incontinence, or problems with your spouse or children. These problems often have an influence on diseases or may be caused by taking certain medications. Your doctor needs to know about them to accurately diagnosis and treat your condition. Also remember that the doctor and staff members are professional people who will protect your privacy.

* Make a list of your symptoms, special concerns, medical history, and current medications and give the list to the doctor. Doing this at home before your appointment keeps you from leaving out details.

* Provide the doctor with a brief, to-the-point description of your problem. What are your symptoms? How severe are they? When did they start? What brings them on? How long do they last and what relieves them?

* If you are concerned about cooperating with the doctor's treatment, say so. Are you worried about the cost involved? Does the treatment conflict with your beliefs and values? Do the possible side effects of a medication bother you to the extent that you are unlikely to take it?

Here are suggestions to help you get the most accurate information and cooperation from the doctor:

* Ask a friend or family member to come with you. Take notes during your visit, take a tape recorder to record the doctor's instructions, or insist on a written explanation.

* You have the right to an explanation of your condition that you understand. Important questions to ask are: "What is wrong?" "What is the cause of my condition?" "What are pros and cons of treatment options?" "How do I know if I need to call you or come back to see you?"

* If you do not understand the doctor's explanation, say so. If the doctor has gone on to the next patient, ask the nurse to provide an explanation for you or provide you with pamphlets about your condition.

* Make sure you understand the action and side effects of any prescribed medication. Find out how often to take the pill, whether you can take it during a meal, and any other special instructions. If you get to the pharmacy to fill the prescription and realize that you still do not understand how to take it, ask the pharmacist for help. Pharmacists are expert at patient teaching, particularly about medications. If you get home and still do not understand what is wrong with you or how to cooperate with treatment, call the doctor's office and talk to the doctor or nurse.

* Ask the doctor for thorough explanations of the preparation for laboratory tests, x-rays, and other procedures. Results are more accurate, and the test does not need to be repeated, when you are appropriately prepared.

* Get acquainted with your insurance plan and how to access care. Some doctors' offices are set up to help you with insurance matters, but not all. Bring your insurance card and any forms that may be necessary, and be prepared to make a co-payment, usually about $10.00.

* Remember that even the best doctor cannot cure everything. You must do your part, too, by following these tips and taking responsibility for your own health.

Becky Sisk (c) 2002 Becky Sisk is your Wizard at "Promoting Good Health for Seniors," and webmaster, NurseScribe,

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