Communication With Healthcare Providers

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Your doctors have given you a treatment plan that may include diagrams about surgery, recipes for chemotherapy, schedules of radiation, and sometimes a many-year commitment to a once-a-day pill. It’s a great deal to take in. If you’re like most people, you will have questions about the treatment plan. But it’s not always easy to put your questions and concerns into words. Maybe you feel nervous about questioning your doctor, or anxious about trying to understand all of the medical terms. You might feel as if your doctor or nurse does not have the time to explain everything in as much detail as you would like.

It is challenging — but important — to overcome these feelings. If you do not get the information you need, you may find it hard to commit fully to your treatment plan. Trying to do something every day that you don’t understand or believe in is very difficult. When you get your questions answered, putting the plan into action becomes easier and feels much better.

The following strategies may help you in talking with your doctor and other members of your health care team:

  • Remind yourself that there is no such thing as a “stupid” question or “silly” concern. Chances are if you have a question, your doctor has heard it from someone else before you. Many people are confused by medical terms and need further explanation, so you’re not alone.
  • Ask for explanation whenever you need it. It can be difficult to ask your doctor to slow down and explain what he or she means. However, it’s important that you leave each appointment with a clear understanding of your treatment plan. If you can’t understand the words your doctor or nurse uses or the written material you’ve been given, don’t be embarrassed. Speak up immediately and ask for an explanation. Do this every time you don’t understand what you’ve been told about your diagnosis, treatment, solutions to side effects, scheduling, follow-up, insurance coverage, or anything else.
  • If your doctor is not communicating well, let him or her know. Not all doctors are great communicators. Some tend to rush through appointments or just assume that everything they are saying is sinking in. Sometimes all you need to do is express your concern. You can politely ask your doctor to go at a slower pace or offer simpler explanations. Your doctor may have educational materials written specifically for patients that you would find helpful. Make it clear to your doctor that you trust him or her and are asking questions because you really value what he or she is saying. Make it clear that you see yourself as a partner in your care.
  • Ask how your doctor would like you to present questions. Should you bring a list of questions to your appointments? Should you fax or email them ahead of time? Should you ask for a phone appointment to get them answered? Whom can you call when you’re having trouble with side effects or feel like going off your treatment plan?
  • When possible, bring a friend or relative with you to appointments, so they can take notes while you talk with your healthcare providers. If no one can come with you, take your own notes on what your doctor says. Trying to hear and remember everything on your own can be overwhelming. It may help to record your doctors’ visits on a tape recorder and replay the explanations about your care when you’re at home. Ask your doctor if it’s OK to record what she or he says.
  • Ask a nurse, social worker, or counselor for help if you’re having trouble getting answers from your doctor. These healthcare professionals often are skilled at talking in everyday language, answering treatment questions, and making suggestions about how to deal with side effects.
  • Ask your primary care or family doctor — the one who’s not a cancer specialist — to help if you have questions or concerns that aren’t being addressed. This doctor may not have all the answers, but he or she can help you get them. You may feel more comfortable with this doctor, especially if he or she has been caring for you for many years.

If the above tips do not resolve problems with communication, you may need to look for a new doctor. Different doctors have different personalities, and you may just not have found the right fit. Give your best effort to make the relationship work, but don’t be afraid to go elsewhere if you cannot get the kind of communication you need. You may want to tap into an online or in-person support group, such as the Breastcancer.org Discussion Boards, to ask other people for recommendations.

For more information about staying on track with specific types of treatment, visit these sections:

Expert Quote

"Your main medical doctor — your family doctor, gynecologist, internist or primary care doctor — whom you may have known longer, can help explain things to you. A lot of patients lose contact with that physician because they make so many doctor visits. They forget that those doctors are a tremendous resource and like to be navigators — that's why they went into primary care. They can advocate for you."

-- Jennifer Griggs, M.D., M.P.H.

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