A doctor and patient work together to improve communication.

10 Tips to Improve Communication with Your Doctors

Doctor-patient communication relies on both parties speaking clearly, listening closely, and understanding the words and concepts of the discussion. Certainly, it’s critical that you listen to and understand your doctors. But it’s equally critical that your doctors provide understandable information and meaningfully listen to you.

But conversations with doctors can be hard. Your doctors may use medical terms you’ve never heard. And with time-squeezed appointments, doctors often rush and/or interrupt patients. On top of all this, when dealing with cancer, you’re stressed and overwhelmed, which can make it impossible to hear, never mind understand and remember, the information your doctor shares.

The benefits of good patient-doctor communication.

Good communication improves outcomes.

Researchers found that patients who effectively communicate with their doctors make more appropriate medical decisions and have better health outcomes.

Speaking up improves patient safety.

Poor patient-doctor communication increases the risk of medical errors. In fact, experts state that speaking up is a critical behavior for patient safety.

The barriers to good patient-doctor communication.

Many patients have low health literacy.

Fully understanding complex medical information is hard for most adults. And if you don’t properly understand medical information, it’s harder to effectively communicate with your doctor. Importantly, researchers found that only 12% of US adults had “proficient” health literacy. Please take this to heart – you might not understand medical information as well as you think you do.

Patients forget or misremember medical information.

Even if you understand medical information, there's a good chance you will forget, or incorrectly remember what you hear. Research shows that:

  • 40%-80% of medical information is forgotten immediately.
  • The more you hear, the lower the proportion remembered.
  • Almost 1/2 of what you do remember, you remember incorrectly.


Doctors’ communication styles.

The way your doctors communicate can hamper good communication. For instance, doctors:

Doctors and patients might not be on the same page.

One study found that patients and doctors frequently differed on their view of the cause, meaning, treatment, and control of their medical conditions. Even with the same information, patients and doctors may interpret it differently.

Electronic Health Records.

Electronic Health Records (EHRs) require doctors to focus on the screen for much of an appointment, which can harm patient-doctor communication.

For example, research shows that doctors feel that EHRs negatively impact their connections with their patients. Additionally, doctors report that EHRs reduce the quality of their patient interactions.

How can you improve communication with your doctors?

I recommend you:

  1. Be an active, engaged member of your medical team! Ask questions, express your concerns and opinions, and participate in the decision-making process.
  2. Prepare for appointments ahead of time by writing down your “story” and your questions.
  3. Make sure your doctor listens to you. If you’re interrupted, continue where you left off – don’t get sidetracked. And don’t leave out details because you are tired of repeatedly telling the same story.
  4. Ask questions until you understand your diagnosis, treatment options, and care instructions. If you don’t understand something, ask your doctor to repeat or rephrase the information.
  5. Repeat back to the doctor a summary of what you heard and ask him/her if you have a proper understanding of what was said.
  6. Take careful, detailed notes during (not after) every appointment. Share the information with everyone on your medical team.
  7. Whenever possible, get printed information from your doctor.
  8. If something doesn’t seem right, speak up!


For hospitalized patients:

  1. Make sure you know who is overseeing your, or a loved one’s, care. If you don’t know who your doctors are, you can’t possibly communicate with them. Interestingly, one study found only 32% of hospitalized patients could name at least one doctor responsible for their care.
  2. Whenever possible, participate in the daily rounds when your medical team discusses your care, or that of a loved one.


Final thought.

Clearly, good communication is a key part of good care. So, if your doctor doesn’t include you in conversations about your health, it might be time to switch doctors.

Roberta Carson started Zaggo, a nonprofit organization, to help patients and family caregivers manage illnesses and injuries, after her experience as caregiver for her teenage son Zachary during his battle with terminal brain cancer. The unique, award-winning ZaggoCare System provides patients and families with the educational information, tools, and resources they need to become empowered, engaged, effective members of their medical teams for the best possible care. Additionally, the Zaggo blog offers helpful advice for patient and family caregivers. 100% of the profits from the sale of ZaggoCare are donated to pediatric brain tumor research in memory of Zachary.

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About Triage Cancer

Triage Cancer is a national, nonprofit providing free education to people diagnosed with cancer, advocates, caregivers, and health care professionals on cancer-related legal and practical issues. Through eventsmaterials, and resources, Triage Cancer is dedicated to helping people move beyond diagnosis.

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