Can We Talk?

Communicating with Your Healthcare Team

How well do you really understand what your doctor tells you? Consider these statistics:

  • A study in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine found that patients forget up to 80 percent of what their doctors tell them as soon as they leave the office, and nearly half of what they do remember is recalled incorrectly.
  • A study of two public hospitals in Atlanta showed that 26 percent of respondents could not understand when their next appointment was scheduled, and 42 percent did not understand instructions to “take medication on an empty stomach.”
  • The U.S. Department of Education reports that 36 percent of adults have basic or below-basic skills for understanding health-related materials.

And that’s just the beginning. Hearing you have cancer can elevate your level of anxiety to a point where you’re not fully able to receive the information that your doctor tells you afterward. Chemotherapy can hamper your memory and thought processes. And doctors are more rushed today than ever before. So how do you optimize your communication with your healthcare team?

“There may not be adequate time for you to think of all your questions while in the office,” maintains Deborah Axelrod, MD, Associate Professor of Surgery and Medical Director of Community Outreach and Education at the NYUCI. “So it’s important for patients to come prepared with their questions, and take steps to ensure that they understand their care and what the healthcare team is telling them before they leave the doctor’s office.”

Understanding what your healthcare team tells you isn’t just a matter of making you feel empowered; it can actually translate to better outcomes. For people with cancer or those at increased risk for the disease, a low ability to understand their health care can result in absent or less frequent screening, poor compliance with treatment, and inadequate follow-up care.

So what can you do? Our experts recommend a collaborative relationship in which you share decision-making with your doctor. Here are tips on how to achieve that goal:

1. Come to your appointments prepared. Write down any questions or concerns you may have, and prioritize them so you ask the most important questions first. Make a list of all the medications you are taking, as well as your other doctors. Bring paper and pen to take notes.

2. Consider bringing someone with you to appointments. Someone else may hear things you do not. And that person can serve as a source of comfort, relieving your anxiety so you are better able to hear what your doctor is telling you.

3. Ask for explanations when you don’t understand. If your doctor is using terms you do not know or is speaking too quickly, ask him or her to slow down and explain the information more clearly in terms you can comprehend.

4. Don’t be afraid to ask for a second opinion. Some people feel they may insult the doctor by stating they want a second opinion. But you are entitled to it. Your doctor will understand.

5. Be completely honest. Answering your doctor’s questions truthfully is important to ensure that you receive the most effective care available.

6. Ask your doctor for the best way to contact him or her with follow-up questions. Most prefer the phone, and some are okay with e-mail.

7. Speak up if your doctor seems too busy. Ask him or her to slow down. If you feel uncomfortable asking, you can say something like “You seem very busy today.” Don’t feel a need to apologize for taking up their time.

8. Raise any concerns about practical and financial matters. If you are concerned about the cost of your care, your insurance coverage, or your ability to come for treatments, bring up these issues with your healthcare team.

9. Set the stage. Some patients feel more confident talking with their doctors when wearing street clothes instead of a gown. Speaking at eye level can also be helpful. Turn off your cell phone and any other lines of communication.

10. Consider a support group. Speaking with other patients who share the same experience as yours can provide insights about your care and how to communicate with your healthcare team.