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Communicating With Doctors and Other Providers

Reviewed by: Kathryn J. Ruddy, MD, MPH

Updated August 20, 2013

You may be juggling appointments with a team of doctors, nurses, social workers and other healthcare providers—either at one location or in many places.

Maintaining good communication with your providers allows you to be a collaborative partner with them. Sharing information and decision-making can increase the quality of care you receive and can help you reach greater emotional well-being.

Challenges for Young Women

As a young woman, communicating with providers can be especially difficult. Because of your age

  • you may have had trouble getting a diagnosis from doctors who dismissed what you said about your symptoms  
  • providers may “talk down” to you
  • you may hesitate to ask questions

Some providers have little experience treating young women with breast cancer. You deserve to have doctors and other providers listen to your concerns, answer your questions and respect your choices.

Communicating Effectively With Providers

Tell providers you want to be involved in your care. Though you may be fearful or nervous, try to communicate with them openly. Share your concerns, feelings and knowledge of your body.

Providers should give you the information you want and ask for your opinion. You have the right to ask questions, agree or disagree and make your own decisions.

Here are some tips to improve conversations with providers:

  • Bring written questions to guide you.
    • There are no “dumb” questions, so ask about anything you want to know.
  • Make it a dialogue—talk and listen in a polite, two-way flow.
  • Every time you don’t understand what is being said, ask for it to be repeated or explained in another way.
    • If the provider uses medical words you don’t know or are unsure about, ask what they mean.
    • Try: “Could you please go over that again, a little more slowly?”
  • To be clear, repeat back information you hear.
    • Try: “So you are saying that [I should have chemotherapy before surgery]?”
  • Bring help—a friend or relative can take notes while you focus on what’s being discussed.
  • Ask the provider if you can record the meeting, so you can listen again later.
  • Choose providers who speak the same language as you.
    • If you speak different languages,ask for a medical interpreter.
    • A family member may help, but might not convey details as well.
  • Speak up if you have been misunderstood, disagree with what’s said or have other concerns.
  • Ask about alternatives to a provider’s recommendation.   
    • Try: “I respect what you’re suggesting. What are my other options?”
  • Find out if you can call or email your provider to ask brief questions.

Make Time Work for You

You may only have a few minutes with providers. Here’s how to put that time to good use:

  • Prepare a folder or binder with written questions, concerns, medical records, a list of your current medicines and supplements and any research you want to discuss.
    • If you are having side effects, note the dates they occurred and their severity.
  • Tell the provider you have a list of questions, so time is allotted for them.
  • Stay on topic (lists help!)
    • Say what you are most concerned about first.
    • Tell your story in a short version, with events in order of when they happened.
  • Discuss personal subjects if they affect your care.
    • Providers need to hear what you are experiencing and what is important to you.
    • See an oncology-trained counselor for in-depth discussions of your emotions.
  • If there’s something you want to talk about further, ask for another appointment, additional time at your next visitor phone or email contact.

Help Providers Communicate With Each Other

Voice your concern if members of your healthcare team aren’t communicating. Give them contact information for each other. Keep them updated on your care and treatment. Ask your patient navigator or oncology nurse for help.

Handling Tough Conversations

You may find some communications difficult. Here are some tips for handling tough conversations:

  • When you feel emotional, it may be harder to listen and respond.
    • Try: “I need to think about this a bit. I’d like to meet again in a few days.”
  • It may also be difficult to start a conversation.
    • Try: “This subject is a little uncomfortable for me, but I need to talk about [my sexual responsiveness since treatment].”
  • Second opinions are normal and gain you important information, so don’t hesitate or worry that asking is an insult.
    • Try: “I trust your evaluation and would also like to get a second opinion. Can you recommend someone?”

Issues for Women With Metastatic Breast Cancer

Discuss anything that pertains to your care and ongoing health, including goals for treatment. Let your providers know how the disease or treatment is affecting you. By sharing, you will help improve communications.

Providers may avoid talking about issues such as advance directives or end-of-life care because they think women with metastatic disease don’t want to discuss them. Ask about any subject you want to.

When Your Provider Doesn’t Communicate Well

Here are some tips you can use if a doctor or other provider is repeatedly impatient with you or communicates poorly:

  • Talk with members of your healthcare team or your family doctor for advice.
    • They might talk with the provider for you.
  • Ask the provider for time to talk.
    • Make a separate appointment, if needed.
  • Let the provider know that communication is not going well.
    • Stay polite.
    • Try: “I’m concerned that we don’t seem to be communicating as well as we could as partners in my care. How do you think we could improve that?”
  • State clearly what you would like to have happen.
    • When interrupted by an impatient provider, try: “I need to explain [my side effects, new concern] more fully. Please listen first and then I would like to hear your thoughts.”
    • For other issues, try: “I appreciate the care you are giving me, but I need you to [answer my questions better, speak to me as a participant in my own care, listen to and respect the input I provide].”
  • You may decide to rely on another team member, such as a nurse practitioner, for communication.
  • Only you can know when the right solution is to change providers, but trying the above options first may help.

This article was supported by Cooperative Agreement Number DP11-1111 from The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Its contents are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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