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How to Talk With Your Doctor

Communication is the foundation of a healthy doctor-patient relationship

Adapted from NIH/National Institute on Aging | May 8, 2012

Based on content from the NIH/National Institute on Aging publication, “Talking With Your Doctor.”

Talking about your health means sharing information about how you feel physically, emotionally and mentally.

Knowing how to describe your symptoms and bring up other concerns will help you become a partner in your health care.

Share Any Symptoms

A symptom is evidence of a disease or disorder in the body. Examples of symptoms include pain, fever, a lump or bump, unexplained weight loss or gain, or having a hard time sleeping.

Be clear and concise when describing your symptoms. Your description helps the doctor identify the problem. A physical exam and medical tests provide valuable information, but it is your symptoms that point the doctor in the right direction.

Questions to ask yourself about your symptoms:

  • What exactly are my symptoms?
  • Are the symptoms constant? If not, when do I experience them?
  • Does anything I do make the symptoms better? Or worse?
  • Do the symptoms affect my daily activities? Which ones? How?

Your doctor will ask when your symptoms started, what time of day they happen, how long they last (seconds? days?), how often they occur, if they seem to be getting worse or better, and if they keep you from going out or doing your usual activities.

Take the time to make some notes about your symptoms before you call or visit the doctor. Worrying about your symptoms is not a sign of weakness. Being honest about what you are experiencing doesn’t mean that you are complaining. The doctor needs to know how you feel.

Give Information About Your Medications

It is possible for medicines to interact causing unpleasant and sometimes dangerous side effects. Your doctor needs to know about all of the medicines you take, including over-the-counter (nonprescription) drugs and herbal remedies or supplements, so bring everything with you to your visit — don’t forget about eye drops, vitamins and laxatives. Tell the doctor how often you take each. Describe any drug allergies or reactions you have had. Say which medications work best for you. Be sure your doctor has the phone number of the pharmacy you use.

Tell the Doctor About Your Habits

To provide the best care, your doctor must understand you as a person and know what your life is like. The doctor may ask about where you live, what you eat, how you sleep, what you do each day, what activities you enjoy, what your sex life is like and if you smoke or drink. Be open and honest with your doctor. It will help him or her to understand your medical conditions fully and recommend the best treatment choices for you.

Voice Other Concerns

Your doctor may ask you how your life is going. This isn’t being impolite or nosy. Information about what’s happening in your life may be useful medically. Let the doctor know about any major changes or stresses in your life, like divorce or the death of a loved one. You don’t have to go into detail; you may want to say something like: “It might be helpful for you to know that my sister passed away since my last visit with you” or “I recently had to sell my home and move in with my daughter.”

Asking questions is key to good communication with your doctor. If you don’t ask questions, he or she may assume you already know the answer or that you don’t want more information. Don’t wait for the doctor to raise a specific question or subject because he or she may not know it’s important to you. Be proactive. Ask questions when you don’t know the meaning of a word (like aneurysm, hypertension or infarct) or when instructions aren’t clear (for example, does taking medicine with food mean before, during or after a meal?).

Learn About Medical Test

Sometimes doctors need to do blood tests, X-rays or other procedures to find out what is wrong or to learn more about your medical condition. Some tests, like Pap smears, mammograms, glaucoma tests and screenings for prostate and colorectal cancer, are done regularly to check for hidden medical problems.

Before having a medical test, ask your doctor to explain why it is important, what it will show and what it will cost. Ask what kind of things you need to do to prepare for the test. For example, you may need to have an empty stomach, or you may have to provide a urine sample. Ask how you will be notified of the test results and how long they will take to come in.

Questions to ask about medical tests:
  • Why is the test being done?
  • What steps does the test involve? How should I get ready?
  • Are there any dangers or side effects?
  • How will I find out the results? How long will it take to get the results?
  • What will we know after the test?

When the results are ready, make sure the doctor tells you what they are and explains what they mean. You may want to ask your doctor for a written copy of the test results. If the test is done by a specialist, ask to have the results sent to your primary doctor.

Discuss Your Diagnosis and What You Can Expect

A diagnosis identifies your disease or physical problem. The doctor makes a diagnosis based on the symptoms you are experiencing and the results of the physical exam, laboratory work and other tests.

If you understand your medical condition, you can help make better decisions about treatment. If you know what to expect, it may be easier for you to deal with the condition.

Ask the doctor to tell you the name of the condition and why he or she thinks you have it. Ask how it may affect you and how long it might last. Some medical problems never go away completely. They can’t be cured, but they can be treated or managed.

Questions to ask about your diagnosis:
  • What may have caused this condition? Will it be permanent?
  • How is this condition treated or managed? What will be the long-term effects on my life?
  • How can I learn more about my condition?

Find Out About Your Medications

Your doctor may prescribe a drug for your condition. Make sure you know the name of the drug and understand why it has been prescribed for you. Ask the doctor to write down how often and for how long you should take it.

Make notes about any other special instructions. There may be foods or drinks you should avoid while you are taking the medicine. Or you may have to take the medicine with food or a whole glass of water. If you are taking other medications, make sure your doctor knows, so he or she can prevent harmful drug interactions.

Sometimes medicines affect older people differently than younger people. Let the doctor know if your medicine doesn’t seem to be working or if it is causing problems. It is best not to stop taking the medicine on your own. If you want to stop taking your medicine, check with your doctor first. If another doctor (for example, a specialist) prescribes a medication for you, call your primary doctor’s office and leave a message letting him or her know. Also call to check with your doctor’s office before taking any over-the-counter medications. You may find it helpful to keep a chart of all the medicines you take and when you take them.

The pharmacist is also a good source of information about your medicines. In addition to answering questions and helping you select over-the-counter medications, the pharmacist keeps records of all the prescriptions you get filled at that pharmacy. Because your pharmacist keeps these records, it is helpful to use the same store regularly. At your request, the pharmacist can fill your prescriptions in easy-to-open containers and may be able to provide large-print prescription labels.

Questions to ask about medications:
  • What are the common side effects? What should I pay attention to?
  • When will the medicine begin to work?
  • What should I do if I miss a dose?
  • Should I take it at meals or between meals? Do I need to drink a whole glass of water with it?
  • Are there foods, drugs, or activities I should avoid while taking this medicine?
  • Will I need a refill? How do I arrange that?

Understand Your Prescriptions

When the doctor writes you a prescription, it is important that you are able to read and understand the directions for taking the medication. Doctors and pharmacists often use abbreviations or terms that may not be familiar.

If you have questions about your prescription or how you should take the medicine, ask your doctor or pharmacist. If you do not understand the directions, make sure you ask someone to explain them. It is important to take the medicine as directed by your doctor.

Keeping a record of the medications you take and the instructions for taking them can help you get the most benefit from them.

More:
Finding a doctor you can talk to
Questions to ask before treatment begins
How to talk to your doctors about sensitive issues

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