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Are you afraid to talk to your doctor?

By Dr. Jennifer Shu, Special to CNN
updated 12:25 PM EDT, Thu May 31, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Go to your doctor's office with a list of topics you want to discuss
  • Be sure to follow up by phone or make another appointment if you still have concerns
  • Asking questions or even challenging recommendations may help doctors learn

(CNN) -- Q: I feel like I'm afraid to talk to my doctor. How can I communicate better at my next appointment?

A: You're not alone. A recent study showed that many patients hesitate to ask questions of their doctors for fear of being labeled "difficult." Even though many -- if not most -- patients want to share in the decision-making process, patients do not always speak up. As a result, the physician-patient relationship may become lopsided, with the doctor calling all the shots.

In this month's Health Affairs, researchers conducted focus groups with 48 relatively affluent and well-educated adults and found many barriers that prevent patients from engaging in medical decision-making. Some of these barriers include a lack of time or sense of feeling rushed, an authoritarian physician style and the fear of being labeled "difficult" by the physician.

As someone who has been on both sides of the patient-physician relationship, I'd like to share a few tips for making the most of a medical encounter. I hope readers will share their experiences, too.

How to partner with your doctor:

Make a list. Doctors go into each visit with a checklist of things to cover: your vital signs, recent medical complaints, current medications, your physical exam and more. Be sure you to come with your own agenda items so your needs will also be met. Let the nurse who checks you in know of your concerns so they can be addressed early in the appointment rather than waiting until the last minute. If you anticipate having a lengthy discussion, you may wish to ask for extra time when scheduling your appointment or book a visit at the end of the day.

Speak up. Although people may feel perfectly comfortable asking questions, stating their preferences or disagreeing with another person in other situations, patients may feel out of their element within a medical setting. By knowing your preferences, your doctor can make the best recommendations for your care, so be sure to initiate the dialogue even if your doctor doesn't come right out and ask. You may want to bring a trusted family member or friend with you to help get your points across (and perhaps to make notes from the visit).

Follow up. If you have any remaining questions or concerns after the visit, be sure to follow up with a phone call to the doctor or nurse or make another appointment if necessary.

Remember that doctors don't know everything, and unfortunately, we aren't always the best communicators. Asking questions or even challenging recommendations may help doctors learn and become better doctors as well as get you the best care possible. If you're not able to have balanced discussions with your doctor without feeling like a "difficult" patient, it may be time to find a doctor whose style is a better fit.

I like to think that there's no such thing as a difficult patient, just a difficult encounter. After all, physicians and patients all share the common goal of keeping you in good health!

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