How to Talk to Your Doctor or Other Health Care Provider

Jul 23, 2014 | 1 comment

By Gail Rubin, CT

Does this sound familiar? After months of complaining about various ailments, Mom gets an appointment to see the doctor. When he asks how she’s feeling, she says, “I feel okay” or “I don’t feel well today” without further details.

She’s just wasted her valuable time, as well as the doctor’s. It doesn’t have to be this way. To make the most of any doctor visit, prepare and plan ahead before going to a health care professional.

Here are six steps to successful communication in the doctor’s office. Walter Forman, a retired hospice and palliative care doctor, recently cited this information from the Cancer Survival Toolbox in an Osher UNM Continuing Education program, “Speaking with Your Health Care Professional.”

1. Express Yourself Well

  1. Practice what you want to say – your specific symptoms, your concerns, and your questions. Explain your symptoms accurately for the right referral.
  2. Talk to the right specialist for your condition. You wouldn’t benefit from discussing your prostate concerns with your cardiologist.
  3. Make eye contact with your health care professional when describing your symptoms and concerns.

2. Get Information Beforehand

  1. Clarify your medical/health issue you want to discuss. Even if you have three or four medical conditions, limit the concerns to be discussed to one main issue.
  2. Research your illness or condition before going to the appointment. You can do online research at reputable websites such as,, and sites for the Mayo and Cleveland Clinics.
  3. Pick a health care professional who will be interested in listening to you. If he/she doesn’t listen to you, stop going to that doctor.
  4. Consider a second opinion if the subject of surgery comes up. Be upfront with the first doctor that you’re getting a second opinion – they will find out sooner or later anyway.

3. Make Decisions About Prescribed Therapies

  1. Take charge. You are ultimately in charge of your health care. Will you defer to the doctor’s orders and follow a plan of care? How long will you take to decide? Gather all the information you feel you need as quickly as you can.
  2. Ask questions. If you don’t like what the doctor says, ask questions or maybe go to another medical professional. “Taking a pill is one thing, having surgery is another,” said Forman.
  3. Take action. Reasons people dither over taking action: Fearing doing something new. Questioning – “What if I’m wrong?” Thinking – “The doctor will be mad at me and then I won’t get ‘good care.’”

4. When You Don’t Understand Something

  1. Ask more questions. If you ask a question and the doctor says he doesn’t have time to discuss it, go back to your original research and ask again.
  2. Take an advocate. Don’t go to the doctor alone. Bring along a family member or friend to sit in quietly, act as a second set of eyes and ears, take notes, and provide another perspective on the conversation.
  3. Rethink the problem and see if you can gain further information from other sources.

5. Resolving Differences with the Doctor

  1. If you’ve never been in this kind of situation or had to make this kind of choice, you may find yourself up against personal limits. Ultimately, you are in charge of your own health care.
  2. Are you too emotionally tied up in the illness to see the situation clearly? You might find other outside help in family, friends or a second opinion from other health care professionals.
  3. Might there be another answer to the situation? Perhaps you and the doctor can work out another solution.

6. Taking Control

  1. Remember, it’s your health and your pain! Don’t let anyone dismiss your concerns saying, “You are just getting older so expect that to happen.”
  2. Be in charge of your life. If you aren’t getting a response from your health care professional for a specific concern, try another provider.
  3. Seek support from those with a similar problem. There are support groups for all sorts of medical challenges.

Here are a few other tips to keep in mind. The top issues for discussion when you see your health care professional include:

  • Changes in health, diet, weight, mobility/balance, and senses such as hearing, smell, sight and taste.
  • Drug changes and their costs, side effects, interactions and generics.
  • Issues that you want diagnosed or treated.

Lastly, keep a health journal in a sturdy composition notebook. It’s an easy way to keep track of your health, illnesses, medicines, treatments and procedures. Take it to your doctor’s appointments for note taking. It can give the doctor exact information about your health, and it helps you be an informed consumer.

Online Resources:

Cancer Survival Toolbox:

Talking With Your Doctor (NIH Publication No. 05-3452):

The Mayo Clinic:

The Cleveland Clinic:


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Gail Rubin, funeral expert and Celebrant

Gail Rubin, CT, The Doyenne of Death®

Gail Rubin, CT, The Doyenne of Death®, is author of the award-winning book A Good Goodbye: Funeral Planning for Those Who Don’t Plan to Die and The Family Plot Blog. Host of A Good Goodbye television series and Internet radio program, she’s a Certified Thanatologist (a death educator) and a popular speaker who uses humor and films to get the funeral planning conversation started.

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