Talking to Your Doctor: When Each Visit Feels Like the First Visit
Here’s what to do if your doctor sometimes forgets what you’ve previously discussed together.
By December 29 655 1
Gary McClain, PhD, is a therapist who specializes in helping clients deal with the emotional impact of chronic and life-threatening illnesses.
Jan really likes the specialist she has been seeing for the past year. He is friendly and caring, and seems to know a lot. She feels like her treatment is going well. But her doctor is also really busy and a little distracted at times, which raises a red flag with Jan. Like during her appointment last week.
Jan’s doctor was going over her progress and he made a comment that caught her off guard: “Have you had a chance to get to the lab yet? I want to get the results before I decide whether to take you off your supplement.”
Jan didn’t remember him requesting that she get any testing done. And, in fact, he had told her to go ahead and discontinue the supplement on her last visit.
He also said, “Let’s go over your schedule for when you take your medications. As you remember, one needs to be taken before a meal and one after.”
While Jan appreciated his thoroughness, they had already discussed this at her last meeting with him, and he had given her specific instructions. Didn’t he have it in his notes?
Jan asked herself, Does my doctor even remember who I am? I feel like we are meeting for the first time!
It could happen to you
Have you ever been in Jan’s shoes? Sure, doctors are busy these days. They go from one patient to another and don’t necessarily have time to go through all the notes for each patient. On the other hand, what if something important slipped through the cracks?
Teaming up with your doctor means helping him or her to do the best job possible in treating you. That might mean jumping in and doing a quick review to make sure your doctor is up-to-date on what you discussed during the last visit. It might also mean correcting your doctor when he or she is in error.
Review what you think you heard during the last appointment. Giving your doctor a brief summary of where you are to date can save a lot of time and frustration for you and your doctor. You can say something like, “I just want to touch base on where we are on ____. During our last appointment, you said _____ and as a result I _______. Are you still comfortable with that?” This approach has a couple of benefits. The first, of course, is that you help assure you are going to get accurate an appropriate recommendation. The second, less obvious benefit, is that you give your doctor an out if he or she has forgotten what was said.
Jump in and make a correction. As the saying goes, when you see something, say something. You can do this without being confrontational. Smile and say, “Actually, I heard it another way and I want to make sure we are in sync. I thought you told me to ____ because ____.” Stated this way, you are not saying directly that your doctor is in error, but that there may have been a miscommunication. This isn’t about coddling your doctor; it avoids putting your doctor on the defensive and promotes teamwork. And keep in mind that the misunderstanding could have been on your end, especially if your doctor was moving faster than usual that day and didn’t explain things thoroughly.
Express your concerns if you feel your healthcare is at risk in any way. I am not intending to imply that you shouldn’t advocate for yourself. If your doctor’s contradictions or forgetfulness alarms you in any way, e.g. if you are absentmindedly prescribed what you know to be a medication you should not be taking, then you have a right to make your doctor aware of your concern. Take a direct approach: “I need to express a concern here. I know you have a lot of patients to see. But I am (allergic to, have had no results before from, etc.) that medication. We’ve talked about it and it should be in my file. I get worried when I feel like you aren’t giving me your full attention.” You’re helping your doctor to do his or her job better.
Remember: Patience is a virtue. But only up to a point. There is a fine balance between helping your doctor keep things straight and putting up with forgetfulness or lack of attention that can be harmful to your health. It’s up to you to decide when the line has been crossed. As always, be your own best advocate.
You and your doctor. Don’t hesitate to take the lead to make sure you’re on the same page. Helping your doctor to do his or her job benefits both of you.
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