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10 Things You Need to Remind Your Doctor
to Do on Your Next Clinical Visit

How many questions does the typical male ask his doctor during a 15-minute visit? Zero. Women fare slightly better. They average six, according to a study by Dr. Sherrie H. Kaplan, an associate dean in the college of medicine at the University of California, Irvine.

doctor patient communication

Only 15 percent of patients are completely clear about what their doctor has said.

Still, studies show that only 15 percent of patients completely understand what their doctor has said, and 50 percent leave the visit without being sure of how to care for themselves.

Part of the problem may be the short time patients typically spend with their doctors, and the even shorter time they're given to express their concerns. Research shows that patients were interrupted, on average, just 18 seconds into their explanation of their problems; less than 2 percent ever got to finish their account.

Communication -- conveying your symptoms, understanding your doctor's opinion, talking about other options -- is clearly necessary to ensure you're getting the best medical care.

''When communication doesn't work and patients have good outcomes, it's by chance,'' Kaplan said in a New York Times article.

However, you can't assume that your doctor will take the lead. Doctors routinely neglect to talk to patients about important matters that could affect their health, so you should be prepared to take matters into your own hands.

During your next doctor's visit, don't leave without having made sure that you know the answer to the following important topics:

  1. Are his or her hands clean? Fewer than 60 percent of doctors wash their hands between seeing patients, according to the UK's Chief Medical officer Sir Liam Donaldson. If you don't see him or her do it, ask the doctor to wash up before your exam.

  2. Can you read the prescription, and is it correct? You may need to remind your doctor to write legibly, or risk a prescription error at the pharmacy. At least 1.5 million Americans are harmed each year from medication errors, so double check with your doctor that the prescription is correct (type of medication, dosage, instructions) and clearly written.

    (The typical error rate for pharmacies is 3 percent, according to the Institute for Safe Medicine Practices, so once you get to the pharmacy, you should also have them verify that they've given you the correct medication.)

  3. What are the side effects? Doctors often prescribe medications that patients are unfamiliar with. Ask about the potential side effects, how likely they are to occur, and whether the drug interferes with any others you may be taking.

  4. Are their alternatives? When your doctor gives you a treatment option, always inquire about alternatives; they will almost always exist. You can ask about different medication options, non-drug approaches, alternative approaches, and the benefits and risks of each, for starters. You can also ask about the long-term outlook if you opt for no treatment at all.


If you receive medication, always double check it with your doctor (the type, the dosage and the potential contraindications) and then again with the pharmacist to ensure no mistakes are made.

  1. Have you ruled out all the possibilities? Your doctor is only human and can make a wrong diagnosis. If you are experiencing a set of symptoms, do your own research first. Then ask your doctor about any potential issues you feel are related to your symptoms if he or she doesn't address them first.

    Meanwhile, when you get diagnosed, always ask if it's possible that more than one condition could be causing your problem.

  2. What are the tests for? Perhaps you've had a blood test, X-ray or other diagnostic procedure. Make sure your doctor tells you what they're for, and how reliable the results are.

  3. What should I do at home? There may be simple remedies (such as hot or cold packs, rest, etc.) or lifestyle changes (diet, exercise, sleep) that will help to speed your recovery. Make sure your doctor tells you about them.

  4. Do you know that I'm taking ... Don't just assume that your doctor is up to speed on all of your medications (over-the-counter, herbal, prescription), lifestyle habits (smoking, drinking) or other important information (traveling outside of the country, allergies, training for a triathlon, working in a toxic environment). These things can have a big impact on your symptoms and safety, so be sure to tell your doctor, even if he or she doesn't ask.

  5. What is causing this? Your doctor may tell you what the problem is, but you may need to remind him or her to fill you in on the cause. Once you know the cause, you may be able to prevent it from reoccurring.

  6. What should I do if ... You know the feeling of getting home from a doctor's appointment and suddenly a million questions pop into your head? It's best to ask your doctor these things before you leave (make a list now and bring it with you so you don't forget). You should find out:

    • What do I do if my symptoms get worse?

    • What if the medication doesn't agree with me?

    • How long will it take for me to feel better?

    • Can I go to work/exercise/drive?

Recommended Reading

The Five Most Dangerous Medicine Mistakes That Way Too Many People Make

Is Your Doctor Skimping on Giving You the Best Advice?


The New York Times July 23, 2007

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