How to help doctors listen and understand better

When we live with chronic illness, the relationship we have with our primary care doctor is one of the most important relationships in our lives. We rely on them to help us. But what happens if we feel the doctor is not listening to us or understanding our problems?

That leaves us feeling as though we’re not being heard. Or we feel as though we may be getting wrong, or no, treatment. And very often, we feel as though we’re not being believed. We have enough to deal with, without that.

So we need to make sure doctors do listen properly and understand exactly what we mean. Ultimately, we need to help them help us.

Help your doctor help you. Help doctors listen and understand so you can have a better relationship

We might only see the doctor for a few minutes at a time and we want to make the most of that time, therefore it is crucial to do some preparation in advance

This post offers some suggestions to plan for an appointment and includes some free downloadable templates.

Seeing the doctor

When seeing a GP (family doctor), try to see the same one at each appointment, unless it’s an emergency. They’ll get to know you. They won’t need to read as much, and you don’t need to explain as much. This means more time to discuss why you are there.

Take a close friend or relative if you feel more comfortable, especially if they know your illness and how it affects you. They can possibly help explain it and they might remember to say things you forget. They’ll also help you remember what the doctor has said.

A tip from one of my blog readers – ask the doctor if you can record the conversation during the appointment. Doing this means you will be able to review it later and take in everything that was said.

Make sure your doctor knows:

  • Conditions and illnesses you have
  • Any inheritable conditions in your family
  • Previous surgeries or serious illnesses
  • Allergies, especially to meds
  • Previous tests and results

Questions and lists

It is crucial to prepare well before a doctor's appointment so you can help them to really listen and understand.
Plan and prepare to get the most benefit from an appointment

Write down questions you have about your condition or treatment plan. List whatever you want to discuss in order of importance. The doctor might not have time to answer everything, so make sure you deal with the most important thing first. Let the doctor see your list, because the indigestion which you listed as number four, might actually deserve first place.

Don’t be upset if your doctor can’t deal with everything while you are in their office. They often only have ten minutes for each patient (sometimes even less).

Honesty

  • Be totally honest with your doctor about your lifestyle, including diet, exercise, alcohol, smoking and drugs.
  • Tell them about any over the counter meds, vitamins, mineral supplements and herbal remedies you take.
  • Never be too embarrassed to discuss something with your doctor – they’ve heard everything before.
  • Be open with them about your emotional health. It’s no good telling your doctor you’re fine when you are struggling with stress, anxiety or depression.
  • Tell the doctor about all aspects of your health, even if you think it might not be important. It could be a piece in the puzzle – the piece that ties everything else together.

The doctor wants to help you, but can only do that if they have all the information.

How to explain your condition/pain

You need to be able to explain to your doctor exactly what your problems are. That sounds simple, but it’s best to put some work into this. Let the doctor know :

  • when it started if it’s a new issue
  • if you’ve had this problem before
  • if it comes and goes or if it’s constant
  • what brings it on
  • which meds help
  • what makes it worse
  • what makes it better
  • an explanation of the type of pain – sharp, dull, aching, etc.
Use the correct words to describe your pain. This can help get a proper diagnosis.
Using the right words to describe the pain is important.

Be a fly on your wall

We might have symptoms which become so normal to us that we don’t think of them as symptoms. It is a good idea to look at our lives as if on the outside looking in.

Do you struggle to get out of bed in the morning or struggle to take a shower and dress? Do you live with constant fatigue? Do you rely on someone to cook a simple meal for you? Do you feel you don’t want to leave the house?

Be a fly on your own wall then explain to your doctor.

Remember – a doctor only knows what we tell them.

Keep a Pain Diary

It is often a good idea to keep a pain diary. It will give the doctor a full picture. It lets them see how well meds help, or don’t help, and can let us find pain triggers. Sometimes triggers don’t happen straight away, so a pain diary can often help us discover those things.

Click the red links below for a free pain diary template  in pdf and word doc format. 

pain diary template (despitepain.com) pdf format

pain diary template (despitepain.com) word doc format

Diagram

Use a diagram to show the exact location of your pain. Doing this will really help the doctor. A diagram can be as simple or as detailed as you want. I have some basic templates in the links below, but if you want a more detailed template, search online for a dermatome.

I made this diagram to explain my trigeminal neuralgia pain. It explains it much better than simply saying, “my face hurts.”

Pain diagram to describe to doctor where the pain is and how it feels. Picture explains face pain condition, trigeminal neuralgia
Pain diagram of trigeminal neuralgia with explanation of pain

Click the red links below to download free to use templates of the body (front and back), face, head and side profile.

body, face and head templates for describing pain in pdf format

body, face and head template for describing pain in word doc format

Take notes while you’re with the doctor

We took notes in with us, but what about while we’re in there? Don’t ever be afraid to write things down. If the doctor diagnoses you with something with a strange name, you might forget it before you reach the car park, so write it down, or ask the doctor to do so. Or if they suggest a treatment or how to titrate meds, having it written down saves worry and confusion later if you can’t remember exactly what was said.

If you don’t understand something, ask the doctor to repeat it and explain it more.

Don’t leave their office not understanding something they told you.

Remember – the doctor doesn’t always know the answers

Don’t panic about this. It doesn’t mean they are a bad doctor. They can’t possibly know everything. Some conditions can be difficult to diagnose or easily confused with others. It might take time and tests to figure it out, or you might need to see a specialist.

If they can’t pinpoint the exact condition straight away, it doesn’t mean they don’t believe you.

But they should try to get answers for you – they need to treat you, test you or refer you to someone who will know more.

You are your own health advocate

We need doctors to be our allies.

We often have to be our own health advocate, push for answers and search for information, especially if we have a less known condition.

If you research your condition, take the information to your doctor and ask their opinion. Let them know you’ve looked at appropriate websites (official organisations are normally the most trustworthy and reliable sources of information). If you are asking for a specific med you’ve read about, ask for their opinion.

They are more likely to be amenable if you ask for opinions and don’t come across as if you think you know more than them.

We need them as allies, not enemies.

If you’re not getting the best from your doctor…

  • explain that to them if you can so that they can perhaps remedy the situation.
  • ask for a second opinion, either from another GP or a specialist
  • look for another doctor if you feel that you just don’t ‘bond’ or you know you could be getting better treatment elsewhere.

Hopefully, that won’t have to happen. Hopefully, you can have a good working relationship with your doctor.

Does your doctor listen to you and really understand what you tell them? If not, I hope this post helps you. Please let me know in the comments section. And do please click the share button. Perhaps it could help some of your friends and members of support groups you belong to.

In my next post, I will be writing about meds – how to maximise the benefits and minimise the side effects. If you follow my blog, you will be notified when it’s posted.

You can also follow me on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.

37 thoughts on “How to help doctors listen and understand better

  1. These are some awesome suggestions. Our best advice for anybody going to a doctor is to learn to do as much self diagnosing as possible, so that you can answer as many questions as possible and you can advocate for yourself, since doctors are limited and human and incredibly busy. 👍🏽

    Like

  2. Great tips! I did a similar post a while ago about being more assertive because these appointments can be so difficult, and all the more challenging when faced with a doctor or specialist who doesn’t seem to be listening. Fab post 🙂
    Caz xx

    Like

  3. Great information! Make your doctor your allie! I’m sure they apreciate someone who goes all prepared. Is not just the doctor job to help. You have to help yourself first. Nice point of view

    Like

  4. sjd68

    These are all very solid tips. As someone who works in the field and has also had a family member with a chronic condition, it’s important to write things down and have someone with you. The patient often times zones out when being diagnosed and that’s when your friend or family member can make sure they’re receiving the information you need. Also, the doctors time with patients is dwindling due to health care demands. Sad but true. They do appreciate when you also are prepared. Thank you for sharing this.

    Like

    1. I agree, having someone with you at appointments, especially when it’s a hospital specialist appointment, is really worthwhile. Two heads are better than one..|
      Doctors are really hard pushed these days time-wise, so we need to do what we can to make the most of every second.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. rachaelthrive

    Especially love the tip about bringing a list and taking notes. It’s really easy to forget the questions or symptoms you wanted to bring up. A list can help you from getting flustered too.

    Like

  6. This is great. Really good reminders about being prepared and communicating as much information as you can. I’m going to share it with my family member who has an ongoing condition and associated pain. Thank you!

    Like

  7. Good advice! Taking someone else or recording the conversation can be so helpful. Plus, preparing your own notes and questions ahead of time and taking them with you works so well.

    Like

  8. Thoughtful advice. We always have an impression that doctors will know everything about our sickness or problems. Till we don’t explain and clear our situation they won’t be able to help you. A perfect article.

    Like

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