Need help understanding the doctor?

Talking to doctors can sometimes be very confusing. But if you ask the right questions, you can get the clarity you need to make the right decisions.

Text: Anna Miller; photo: Sanitas

We’ve all been there: you’ve had a routine medical check-up or maybe even an emergency appointment and you’re worried and have got lots of questions. Perhaps you don’t understand some of the medical terms or you don’t feel like the doctor is really listening to you. Studies show that patients forget up to 80% of the information they’re given – presumably because they don’t understand around half of it in the first place. 

Although medical students today are taught better communication skills and are given tips during their studies on how to talk to patients, patients themselves can also help make sure they get all the information they need when talking to a doctor.

Be prepared

If possible, start thinking about what you want to say before the appointment. What do you want to ask? Make a note of the questions and take them with you to the doctor. You can find helpful questionnaires and checklists that suggest possible questions online. We’ve summarised key questions in the infobox below.

Use the teach back method

Have the courage to query something. You don’t have to understand everything straight away. After all, you’re not the expert.

Summarise what you’ve heard into your own words. The teach back method is a communication confirmation method, and it also works really well in relationships, at work and when talking to doctors. Start your sentence with: “Have I understood correctly that ...?” or “So, that means I have to ...?“ 

Get help

Ask a friend or relative to go with you to the appointment

Metacommunication can help

Our world is becoming more and more digital. Perhaps your doctor is so intent on entering your details in the system correctly that you have the feeling that they are not really listening to you. If this is the case, don’t be afraid to say something. You have a right to their full attention. Both parties have to be fully present in the conversation to take in information properly.

If the conversation continues to be difficult despite your efforts, you can also use metacommunication to explain how you feel directly and honestly. This takes courage, but is worthwhile. For example, you could say: “I’m feeling overwhelmed right now” or “I have the feeling that my concerns aren’t being taken seriously.” If you continue to feel uncomfortable with the other person, you may want to think about changing your doctor. To establish a relationship of trust, the chemistry between the two of you must be right.

Honesty is key

Don’t be afraid to raise sensitive issues. No matter whether you’re suffering from mental health problems, a lack of sex drive or if you’ve forgotten to take your medication or want to explore another treatment option, you can only tackle the issue if the doctor is aware of your personal situation.

5 key questions to ask when talking to the doctor:

What treatment options are available?

What are the advantages and disadvantages?

How likely are these advantages and disadvantages to occur?

What can I do?

What will happen if I don’t do anything?