If you or a loved one has been given a life-changing diagnosis, your medical team is going to be a significant part of your journey. As a neurosurgeon, I regularly work with patients facing difficult diagnoses and have seen how increased communication and empathy between patient and provider can create a better experience for both.
But, having also lost two vibrant loved ones to sudden illnesses, I know how difficult it can be to actually achieve these ideals: managing intense feelings while communicating with medical providers and making critical decisions is overwhelming. At these times, having a strong, mutually supportive relationship with your providers can make all the difference.
To that end, I want to offer the following tips to foster positive communication with medical providers.
While you are certainly welcome to keep personal thoughts private, giving your doctors insight into your priorities and feelings allows them to treat you as a whole person who needs care, instead of simply a body that needs medicine.
If you are someone who prefers to entrust all choices to your doctor, know that it is important not to ask your doctor to leave details out or to downplay the seriousness of the medical situation. These conversations will indeed be difficult; however, understanding what to expect after a diagnosis helps you to make appropriate decisions, especially if it comes to how you plan to spend precious, potentially limited time with family.
To help foster good listening, here are some tangible steps you can take before and during your visit, adapted from advice offered by the Hospital for Special Surgery:
Keep a notebook of care, and write down your questions and concerns before your visit with the doctor or specialist.
Show that you are listening with body language, where possible.
Take notes after conversations, even if everything seems easy to remember.
At the end of each conversation with the doctor, repeat back to them what you took away from the visit, just as you would debrief after an important work meeting. This helps to ensure you are on the same page.
Bring a family member or friend, if they are willing, for a second set of ears.
Do not be afraid to ask for help in communicating. Sometimes cultural misunderstandings, doctor-patient power dynamics, personality differences, or language barriers may make communication especially difficult. Hospitals typically employ social workers who can help in many cases; in cases where a language barrier is present, hospitals have a legal and ethical obligation to offer professional, high-quality language interpretation services to facilitate communication with your provider.
Connect all of your or your loved one’s doctors, specialists, and surgeons so that they can work together to coordinate care.
It may help to remember the particular difficulties that healthcare staff members face behind the scenes: medical systems are often stretched thin, and providers have to share their time between a number of patients equally in need of care.
Often there is anxiety about timing as you wait to hear back from your providers: remember that your team is equally eager to receive new information and share it with you, but they need time to process, interpret, and fully consider test results before presenting options to you.