How to talk doctor

Communicating with your health care provider doesn't have to be awkward.

Talking about sex can be tough enough in bed—even worse in a doctor’s office. Fortunately there are some dos and don’ts to make your visit easier and more productive for you and your health care provider.*

Part 1: Before the visit (Prepare, prepare, prepare…)

There are a few simple things you can do before seeing your provider to make sure you get the most out of the visit:

Do get organized. Pay attention to how you’re feeling in the weeks before the visit, including whether your period is regular. Jot down notes about anything unusual. You should have the start-date of your last period on hand for your appointment, as well as a list of any medications you’re already taking, including correct name, daily dose, who prescribed it, and why you’re taking it. Don’t forget about over-the-counter and complementary/alternative medicines.

Do know your stuff. If there are specific medications you’re interested in, make sure to have information about them handy for your appointment. If you’re interested in getting on birth control or switching methods, think about what methods might work best for you. We have a comparison tool that allows you to print information about up to 3 methods to bring to your appointment.

Don’t self-diagnose. While it’s super helpful for you to do your homework and go to your appointment prepared to talk about meds or methods you think could be a fit for you, you also need to be ready to listen to and consider your provider’s recommendations. Internet research is a wonderful thing, but your provider went to school for a really long time and should have valuable insight to offer as you decide what’s best for you health-wise.

Part 2: During the visit (Get active and give details.)

It’s important to be an “active” patient when you visit your health care provider—you are your own best advocate, after all. Understanding how a typical visit goes can make that easier. Most visits break down into four stages—subjective history, objective exam, assessment, and plan of care. A few things to think about in each stage:

Stage 1: Sharing time!

This is when you tell your provider what’s ailing you and what you need his/her help with. Go ahead and whip out those notes you made before the visit…

Do go into detail. We’re not saying to describe every moment of your morning cuddle session, but health care providers work best with specifics, so don’t be shy about sharing information that could be relevant to your health care. A few good ways to get specific with your provider:

  • Speak in headlines. Make sure you’re prepared (um, did we mention notes?) to tell your provider why you’re there, what your symptoms are, when your symptoms started, and which symptoms are bothering you most.

  • Use a scale of 1-10. The 1-10 scale is universal code for anything health-related. It usually refers to the degree or intensity—10 being the most intense and 1 being the least—so neither end of the scale is necessarily good or bad. The scale can be useful when your provider asks you questions like: “What’s your period been like since you got your Paragard?” And you can answer: “It’s been really heavy—on a scale of 1-10, normally it’s about a 4. Lately it’s been more like a 7. My cramps are at an 8—normally I’d say they’re at a 6.”

Do make sure you have a chance to ask questions. Some providers might want to wait till after they examine you (stage 2 below) to answer your questions. Others might assume that if you have questions, you’ll ask them at the beginning of the visit. Never hurts to check with a simple “I have a few questions—will there be time to ask them later or is now a good time?”

Don’t beat around the bush. Studies suggest that many patients wait until their third question to bring up what they really want to talk about with their provider. Break the cycle and tackle your priority questions first. Your provider will appreciate your directness and it’ll mean more time for answers!

Don’t worry about being judged. Whatever you have to say, your provider has probably heard it before. If you get signals that your provider’s belief system could be a barrier to communication, try saying something like, “I have something personal to talk to you about,” or “this is hard for me to bring up, but…”. This signals to the provider that the topic is important to you and you need a thoughtful response. If your provider responds in a judgmental way, or if at any point in the visit your provider says something you think is wrong, hurtful, or confusing, speak up and say how you’re feeling.

Stage 2: Get checked out.

This is the part where your provider does the whole test-running/examination/stethoscope thing. Relax, follow instructions, and gather your thoughts on anything else you want to discuss later in the visit.

Do be honest and direct. If your provider has questions for you at this point, answer them as accurately and directly as possible. Avoid the temptation to shape your answers according to what you think your provider wants to hear.

Stage 3: Break it down.

Now your provider will diagnose any problems based on your conversation and physical examination.

Do beware of invisible decision-making. A busy provider might not explain every detail of how she or he is making decisions for you, so if you’re not prepared to ask the right questions, your options could be limited to assumptions your provider makes. If you want to start birth control, or switch methods, tell your provider which methods you’re interested in and, if necessary, why you think those methods could be a fit for you. This is where the information you gathered pre-visit about methods or medications of interest will come in handy.

Stage 4: Make a plan.

At this stage you’ll work with your provider to decide on a specific health care action plan.

Do be realistic. As you and your provider discuss a plan of care, make sure you’re being honest with your provider—and with yourself—about what will work for you over time. If you know your schedule is nuts and you won’t be able to remember a pill every day, tell your provider that and ask if there’s another option.

Do take (more) notes. Research shows that patients start to forget what their providers said just 20 minutes after a visit. Taking notes during your visit and repeating your care plan back to your provider is way better than realizing a day (or even an hour) later that the plan is already hazy.

Part 3: After the visit (Done yet? Depends how you’re feeling…)

Hopefully all will go smoothly and you’ll leave your appointment feeling confident about your provider and your plan of care. If not:

Don’t be afraid to get a second opinion. If you get along with your provider, it should be easy to tell her or him that something is important to you and you want another perspective on it. Always remember: your provider’s job is to help you get the best advice possible so you can make good decisions about your health. If you find your provider resisting these requests, it might mean you need a new one.

Do try a different provider if you’re not happy with yours. If you followed all the suggestions above and still left your appointment feeling frustrated, confused, or uncomfortable, it might be time to find a different provider. If so, look for one before you’re on a tight deadline to get your next check-up or prescription. Our health center finder can help.

Not so bad, right? Just remember that you deserve amazing health care—and you can make that a reality. Now go forth and be the impressively prepared, note-taking, doctor-talking superstar we know you are.

* We occasionally use the term “doctor” for the sake of brevity (it’s shorter than “health care provider”), but we’re well aware that many of you get great care from other fantastic health care professionals like Nurse Practitioners, Nurse Midwives, and Physician’s Assistants. That’s why wherever possible we use “provider” instead.

This article was developed with the assistance of Cheree Cleghorn, creator of the “How to Speak Doctor” program. Advice from the program has been adapted for a Bedsider audience and published with Cheree’s permission.

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