Let's face it, there's a reason your MD majored in biology instead of English—doctors aren't always the best communicators. And though most physicians get some training on how to interact with patients during medical school, if you have a doctor who's as old as I am, that could have been two or three decades ago.
That's why it's often up to you, the patient, to make sure you and your doctor understand each other. Poor communication has persistently been shown to be a leading cause of patient complaints against doctors, and, scarily, it occurs often: In a recent study of arthritis patients and their doctors, researchers found that nearly one in five visits ended in a complete miscommunication about whether knee replacement surgery was recommended for the patient. Here's my five-part prescription for getting the most out of every checkup.
1. Make a list of your concerns. If you get interrupted—which is a likely prospect, since research has shown that it takes doctors only 23 seconds, on average, to interrupt their patients—having a list of the topics you want to discuss will remind you to return to your most important points.
2. Don't spare the details. More than 80 percent of health problems can be diagnosed by the information that you provide to your doctor—so be specific. If you have belly pain, for example, be prepared to pinpoint whether it's piercing or throbbing, how severe it is on a scale of 1 to 10, when it occurs and how often, and what makes it better or worse.
3. Ask the tough questions. If your doctor suggests a new medication, why is it better than the drug you're currently taking? If she advises that you get a diagnostic procedure, are there any less invasive alternatives?
4. Don't tweak the truth. Some of the most common white lies we hear: (falsely) swearing that you don't smoke or drink, that you're eating a healthy diet, and that you're following our instructions. Some researchers estimate that as many as half of all patients tell their doctor they're taking their medication as prescribed, when in fact they're not.
5. Insist on understanding. Can you guess how often doctors ask their patients whether they understand what's being discussed? Less than 2 percent of the time. Don't be afraid to interrupt and say, "I'm confused—can you explain that in layman's terms?" If it helps to take notes or tape-record the conversation, do so. One study showed that after the visit was over, on average, older patients forgot more than 75 percent of what their doctor had said.