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 they’re not helping us. How can we help doctors to listen and understand better?

Sometimes our voices are not heard. And very often, we feel as though we’re not being believed.

We are living with enough without that.

Doctors Listen and Understand Better With the Patient’s Help

Appointments with doctors normally only last for a few minutes, therefore it’s very difficult for them to really listen and understand what’s going on. We need to make the most of that time, therefore it is crucial to do some preparation in advance.

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

How to help doctors listen and understand. Two hands at the top of the picture. Between the hands is a red heart monitor graph which forms a heart shape in the middle.

How to Help Doctors Listen and Understand

This post offers some suggestions to plan for an appointment and includes some free downloadable templates. Hopefully, these will help your doctors listen and understand what’s going on.

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 so they won’t need to read as much and you don’t need to explain as much. This means that there’s 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

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 five, 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 something 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 or 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, burning etc.

Be a Fly on Your Wall

We might have symptoms that 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 or use a symptom tracking app. There are many apps to choose from, but my preference is the Bearable App as it covers everything. It’s simple to use and you can quickly track all your symptoms in just a few minutes.

Tracking your pain will help you to give your 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.

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.

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 template for describing pain in word doc format

Take Notes While You’re With the Doctor

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 you were told.

Remember – the Doctor Doesn’t Always Know the Answers

Don’t panic about this. It doesn’t mean they are a bad doctor. Many doctors do listen and understand, but 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 often have to be our own health advocates, 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.

Do you find your doctors 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.

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42 thoughts on “How to Help Doctors Listen and Understand Better

  1. Vox

    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. ??

  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

  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

  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.

    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.

  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.

  6. Francisco

    Thank you, it could had not come in at better timing, I will start to be better advocate for myself.
    Thank you again.

  7. 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!

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

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  13. Michele

    Thank you for the pain PDF’s. I will definitely use them when I see my new movement disorder specialist in 2 weeks!

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  19. I’m SO tired of trying to do this: been trying for nearly 15 years after a very bungled & unnecessary op in the UK that left me with serious life-long injuries.

    My trusted GP ignored so much info I gave him (showing brain, neck, throat & vision damage & more) & he refused 24hr heart monitor he’d promised when I explained my sudden heart effects. Went with notes from the start (had to: my memory badly affected & still is), still do, but can’t get docs to believe what I tell them & get fobbed off as though I’m lying/exaggerating (I’m not, my old GP KNEW that), and can’t MAKE them examine properly as they should nor refer when needed (& write correct info in referral), plus they prescribe tablets without offering me choices & without explaining serious unwanted effects (‘side effects’) that are particularly relevant to me.

    Exhausted from being told to try again, do it better, complain… I was neglected by docs/hospital as soon as they became aware how serious my injuries were & that I KNEW they were: they went into complete defence mode.

    Now so long later the list is too long because each problem hasn’t been addressed as soon as I got it & told them. EXHAUSTED from trying to explain & justify & argue = even more difficult because of my brain injury and problems with talking & understanding speech and extreme fatigue & pain.

    I WISH docs would help ME help THEM! And I WISH they’d do it right FIRST TIME, or second… I’m so much more injured now because they kept failing to do it right & because guilty docs at start told lies & other docs afraid to help me get the truth – including my trusted long-term GP who had told me ‘you’re one of the most sorted people I see’ but then appeared to be ‘unable to recall’ that, same as his stoiries about other things he suddenly claimed to have forgotten (not written down) & excuses for why the prescription he’d promised (2 different stories, bith lies) never arrived at chemist.

    When ill & injured it should NOT be up to us to do all this: they’re PAID to do it, it’s their job. I tried SO hard to help them help me but they all chose not to: negligences & breach of duty & neglect & torture actually. Plus they KNEW what they were doing and what it would do to me but they didn’t care = forethought & malice on top but apparently not crimes.

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