The Best Way to Talk to Your Doctor, According to Doctors

By Elizabeth Millard |

Feeling like your appointments aren’t going the way you want? These expert-backed insights will help you build a stronger relationship with your doctor.

Best way to talk to your doctor

Even if you see your doctor regularly, you may have appointments that just don’t go the way you wanted. Maybe you didn’t feel heard or couldn’t address a major concern. Or maybe you left without clear direction on what to do next.   

And if you’re about to see a health care provider for the first time, you may wonder how you’re going to convey your long medical history in such a short timeframe.  

The good news? There are some simple ways to make the most out of these visits. Try these expert strategies from doctors on how to maximize your appointment time. 

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Tip #1: Do a Short Dress Rehearsal 

The more organized you are going into an appointment, the better that time will be spent, says Stephanie Rosales, M.D., a hospitalist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York. (A hospitalist is a physician who manages care for patients while they are in the hospital.)  

“Time is limited, so preparation is very much key to making good use of the few minutes patients have with their physician,” Dr. Rosales says. 

Before your appointment, gather the following: 

  • A list of questions about your condition or treatment 
  • A list of symptoms or concerns that are bothering you the most — ideally, in a log format to see trends over time, such as more pain in the evenings compared to the mornings 
  • Notes about medication side effects you’re experiencing or are concerned about 
  • Screenings you’d like to ask about 
  • New problems that have developed since your last visit 
  • The names of medications you need refilled 
  • A list of current medications — including vitamins, supplements, and over-the-counter remedies you take regularly. Or better yet, bring the bottles. Then your doctor will be able to see dosages, when the medicine was last filled, and the prescribing doctor. 
  • Printed medical documents from recent visits with specialists or other providers. If you were recently hospitalized for any reason, share your discharge notes and instructions with your doctor, too.   

“Unfortunately, our healthcare system is still fragmented, so electronic medical records from one hospital or provider may not transfer over to another,” Dr. Rosales says. “If you have the information handy, it allows for better continuity of care.”  

Part of this prep work could be done online. Many healthcare systems have electronic patient portals where you can fill out questionnaires about your condition before coming to your appointment. Some may even allow you to upload relevant documents, like your COVID-19 vaccine card.  

If you don’t use an electronic patient portal, plan to arrive early enough to fill out paperwork before your appointment time.  

Tip #2: Bring a Friend 

Even if you have all of your information ready to go, it’s helpful to bring a trusted representative or advocate, says Hiten Patel, M.D., a family medicine physician at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.   

Your advocate could be a spouse, family member, or medical social worker (sometimes called a case manager). Ideally, it’s best to have this individual at every appointment so they’re informed about everything related to your care.  

“Someone like this can help provide additional history and recall what was discussed during the visits,” he says.   

Another bonus is that this person can take detailed notes about what the doctor says and potential next steps. This frees you up to have a conversation, instead of worrying that you’re missing vital information just because you’re trying to write everything down.  

Tip #3: Lead with Small Talk

Medical appointments will never be as laid back as coffee dates with friends, but you don’t have to approach them with dread, either, says Dr. Patel.   

Take those first few moments — just a few! — to break the ice with small exchanges of pleasantries. After all, you’re not heading into a business deal, you’re going to be discussing your well-being.   

Weather and sports talk almost never fail to lighten the mood. Genuine compliments are other good ways to ease into your appointment. Play it safe by sticking to complimenting them on things like their jewelry or tie — or maybe a statement pair of shoes or eyeglasses. 

That one minute of easy chit-chat will help both of you relax and find common ground, he adds. It’s time well spent before you move on to the crux of your visit, which brings us to…

Tip #4: Focus on Your Chief Complaint

When you get older, your medical history and health concerns may become multi-layered. That complexity might lead to what’s called the “doorknob comment,” says Scott Kaiser, M.D., a geriatrician and director of geriatric cognitive health for Pacific Neuroscience Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in California.  

“That’s when a patient makes a seemingly minor comment just before walking out the door,” Dr. Kaiser says. “Often, those can be the most important health issues, and the ones we should have focused on for the visit.”  

A better strategy is to focus on your major complaint, he suggests. That might be chronic pain, problems sleeping, sexual health, depression symptoms, or anything that seems the most central to your quality of life right now.  

Tip #5: Get Real and Open Up

Usually, people tend to think of health care as simply managing a condition. You might have to shift your mindset to discuss with your doctor goals for your health that are more specific and personal, Dr. Kaiser says.  

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These personal goals are very important for your care because they give your doctor an idea of what’s most important to you. 

For example, your goal might be to have less knee pain, but it could also be to see your youngest grandchild graduate or run a 5K by the end of the year.  

“Overall, the goal for your care isn’t just to get your numbers looking good — it’s to help you enjoy a good, healthy life where you can enjoy the things that matter most to you,” Dr. Kaiser says. “Sharing what those things are with your doctor can be more helpful than you realize.”  

So the next time a doctor walks into the office and asks, “Why are you here today?,” that’s your opening to tell them the truth.  

Tip #6: Ask Questions 

Doctors aren’t mind readers. If you have concerns or questions about the treatment plan they’ve outlined, the only way they’re going to know that is if you speak up, says Dr. Patel.  

Before you leave, make sure you understand: 

  • Why they’re recommending a treatment plan, test, or medication 
  • What, if any, risks or side effects you can expect — and how to manage them 
  • What longer term expectations can you have after following this treatment 

Health care is a participatory event, he adds. All players — including you the patient — need to be actively involved so that you can receive the best possible care and enjoy the best possible outcome. 

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