Many of us struggle in our attempt to communicate with our doctors. One of the problems is that we just forget to ask all of our questions. We get into the examining room after waiting extended periods of time, the doctor comes whirling into the room with arm loads of records (most of which are not even ours) and clearly is already preparing to leave to see the next patient! All of this happens before we can settle down to ask more than one or two questions. Under this time pressure, we almost always forget to ask all the questions that have been bothering us since the last visit.

The standard solution that most magazines and books suggest is to go into the appointment armed with a written list of questions. This list can be compiled as we go through our normal daily routines, just make sure that you write down the question on your master list as they occur to you.

This is a good solution, but it is not the complete answer! When you ask your questions, you must make sure that you communicate all of your concerns, pains and related issues. Doctors are not mind readers and cannot know what is happening unless you tell them. You must take an active and equal role with your doctor as a communicator.

However, doctors are known to be terrible listeners. In his New York Times best seller,
How Doctors Think, Jerome Groopman, M.D. has asserted that the average doctor will interrupt their patient every 18 seconds! In today’s medical economy, doctors feel a tremendous amount of time pressure, as they must see between four and five patients every hour. Therefore, most doctors will seize upon the first symptom, complaint you present to them and unfortunately will often become locked into this one thought or symptom instead of listening for other issues, or understanding what is the real complaint.

When you find yourself in this position, your best solution is to acknowledge this issue and say, yes that is true this is one of my symptoms, but I need to tell you more. Then continue and say I actually have a number of symptoms all of which will help to clarify my concern. Then go on and share your concerns and symptom.

If your doctor becomes irritated or refuses to allow you to explain fully then you should consider replacing your doctor with someone who will listen completely.

My wife Wendy works as a hospital based physiologist. One of her tasks is to teach new medical residents how to listen to their patients. We all assume that if you can make it through medical school you are a capable communicator. This just is not true. More often then not doctors do not have the basic listening skills their profession should require.

We have to urge our hospitals to require that their new residents take some basic instruction in listening skills. Moreover, we must make sure that our own doctors listen carefully and completely to what we say to them. If they do not listen, we need to stop them — until they do listen. Do not leave that examining room until you are satisfied that they completely heard us and responded to us.

Joel T. Nowak MA, MSW