How to Talk to Your Doctor: A Guide for Caregivers and Elders

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Having a meaningful discussion about your parents' health means openly sharing information about how they feel physically, emotionally and mentally. Starting with a foundation of trust, knowing how to describe symptoms, and feeling comfortable bringing up other concerns will help you become a partner in your parents' health care. Family conversations about health concerns may be simple, but when it comes to candidly talking with their doctor about about all the minute details, caregivers can run into some roadblocks. The tips and guidelines listed below will help you team up with your loved one and their doctor to yield the best possible outcome for their health care.

Providing Relevant Information

The first step to addressing your loved one's health with their physician is providing them with crucial information. Some aspects of this step may seem excessive or unnecessary, but doctors rely on all of these details to arrive at the most precise diagnosis.

Communicate Symptoms

A symptom is evidence of a disease or disorder in the body. Examples of symptoms include pain, fever, a lump or bump, unexplained weight loss or gain, or having a hard time sleeping.

Be clear and concise when describing symptoms. Precise descriptions help the doctor identify the true problem. A physical exam and medical tests provide valuable information, but it is often these symptoms that point the doctor in the right direction.

Take the time to make some notes about symptoms before you call or visit the doctor. Ask your parent these questions and record their answers:

  • What exactly are your symptoms?
  • When did they start?
  • Are the symptoms constant? If not, when do you experience them and how long do they last?
  • How often do they occur?
  • Does anything you do make the symptoms better? Or worse?
  • Do the symptoms affect your daily activities? Which ones? How?

The doctor will likely cover all of the above questions during the visit and it helps to brush up on the specifics before an appointment.

Give Information About Medications

It is possible for medicines to interact causing unpleasant and sometimes dangerous side effects. The doctor needs to know about ALL of the medicines your parent takes, including over-the-counter (nonprescription) drugs and herbal remedies or supplements, so bring everything with you to your visit. Don't forget about eye drops, vitamins, and laxatives. Tell the doctor how often your parent takes each as well as the dosage. Describe any drug allergies or reactions your parent has had. Be sure your doctor has the phone number of the pharmacy you use.

Describe Daily Habits

To provide the best care, the doctor must understand your parent as a person and know what their life is like. They may ask about where they live, what they eat, how they sleep, what they do each day, what activities they enjoy, and if they smoke or drink. Be open and honest with them. It will help him or her to understand your parent's medical conditions fully and recommend the best treatment choices.

Voice Other Concerns

Your doctor may ask you how your parent's life is going. This isn't being impolite or nosy. Information about what is happening in their life may be extremely useful medically, even if it seems irrelevant. Let the doctor know about any major changes or stresses, such as a divorce or the death of a loved one.

You don't have to go into detail. You may want to say something like, "it might be helpful for you to know that my mother's husband passed away since our last visit with you," or, "my mother recently had to sell her home and move in with me."

Be Honest

It is tempting to say what you think the doctor wants to hear, for example, that your parent smokes less or eats a more balanced diet than they really do. While this is natural, it's not in your parent's best interest. They can suggest the best treatment only if you share what is really going on.

Decide what questions are most important. Pick three or four questions or concerns that are most important for you and your loved one to address. You can tell him or her what they are at the beginning of the appointment and then discuss each in turn. If you have time, you can then go on to other questions.

Stick to the Point

Although the doctor might like to talk with you both at length, each patient is given a limited amount of time for their appointment. To make the best use of your time, stick to the point. For instance, give the doctor a brief description of your loved one's situation.

Share Your Point of View About the Visit

Tell the doctor if you feel rushed, worried, or uncomfortable. If necessary, you can offer to return for a second visit to discuss your concerns. Try to voice your feelings in a positive way. For example, you could say something like: "I know you have many patients to see, but I'm really worried about my parent's health. I'd feel much better if we could talk about it a little more."

But remember, even the best doctor may be unable to answer some questions. Most will tell you when they don't have answers. They also may help you find the information you need or refer your parent to a specialist. If a doctor regularly brushes off your questions or their symptoms as simply a part of aging, think about looking for another physician.

Asking the Doctor Questions

The second part of communicating well with your parent's physician is asking plenty of questions and listening carefully to their answers. If you don't ask questions, they may assume you already know the answer or that you don't want more information. Don't wait for the doctor to raise a specific question or subject because he or she may not know it is important to you. Be proactive. Ask questions when you don't know the meaning of a word (like aneurysm, hypertension or infarct) or when prescription instructions are unclear (for example, does taking medicine with food mean before, during or after a meal?).

Learn About Medical Tests

Sometimes doctors need to do blood tests, x rays, or other procedures to find out what is wrong or to learn more about a person's medical condition. Some tests, such as Pap smears, mammograms, glaucoma tests, and screenings for prostate cancer and colorectal cancer, are done regularly to check for hidden medical problems.

Before a parent has a medical test, ask the doctor to explain why it is important, what it will show, and what it will cost. Ask what kind of things will need to be done to prepare for the test. For example, they may need to have an empty stomach, or they may have to arrive ready to provide a urine sample. Ask how you will be notified of the test results and how long they will take to come in.

When the results are ready, make sure the doctor tells you what they are and explains what they mean. You may want to ask your doctor for a written copy of the test results. If the test is done by a specialist, ask to have the results sent to your parent's primary doctor.

Discuss Your Diagnosis and What to Expect

A diagnosis identifies your parent's disease or physical problem. The doctor makes a diagnosis based on the symptoms they are experiencing and the results of their physical exam, laboratory work, and other tests.

If you understand your parent's medical condition, you can help make better decisions about treatment. If you know what to expect, it may be easier for you all to deal with the condition.

Ask the doctor to tell you the name of the condition and why he or she thinks your parent has it. Ask how it may affect them and how long it might last. Some medical problems never go away completely. They may not be cured, but they can be treated or managed. Be sure to ask what may have caused or contributed to the condition, what long-term effects it may have, and how you can learn more about it.

Making Decisions With Your Parent's Doctor

Giving and getting information are two important steps in talking with the doctor. The third big step is making decisions about your loved one's care based on the information you have exchanged.

Your loved one will benefit most from a treatment when you both know what is happening and what is involved in making decisions. Make sure you understand what the treatment involves and what it will or will not do. Have the doctor provide directions and details in writing and feel free to ask questions. If the doctor suggests a treatment that makes your loved one uncomfortable, ask if there are other treatments that might work.

How to Choose a Treatment

  • Discuss Choices
    There are different ways to manage many health conditions, especially chronic conditions like high blood pressure and cholesterol. Ask what the options are.
  • Discuss Risks and Benefits
    Once you know the options, ask about the pros and cons of each one. Find out what side effects might occur, how long the treatment would continue, and how likely it is that the treatment will work.
  • Consider Your Parent's Values and Circumstances
    When thinking about the pros and cons of a treatment, don't forget to consider its impact on your parent's overall life. For instance, will one of the side effects interfere with a regular activity that means a lot to them? Is one treatment choice particularly expensive and not covered by insurance? Doctors need to know about these practical matters and can work with you both to develop a treatment plan that meets these needs.

The National Institute on Aging (NIA), one of the 27 Institutes and Centers of the National Institute of Health (NIH) leads a broad scientific effort to understand the nature of aging and to extend the healthy, active years of life. In 1974, Congress granted authority to form NIA to provide leadership in aging research, training, health information dissemination, and other programs relevant to aging and older people.

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1 Comments

These are all very good points. I know myself after talking to my Dr. I realize that I should have mentioned? And so on, I think making notes as a guideline will help both you and your Dr. to get to the bottom of things.