Most people would say that going to the doctor is stressful. You’re there because you don’t feel your best; you’re poked with needles and prodded with questions. You’re worried about what the doctor will find and what she will tell you. You’re concerned that you’ll forget to tell your doctor something important or not remember what your doctor has told you at the appointment. And you may be anxious that you won’t understand what she says.
There are several reasons behind this common problem.
Health literacy is a term used to describe an extremely complicated skill set that’s needed to understand what is being said in the healthcare setting. Conversational competence, that is, the ability to listen effectively, articulate health concerns and explain symptoms accurately are part of health literacy. Health literacy also encompasses decision-making and analytical abilities like evaluation, analysis and interpretation. Even the ability to locate information and assess its quality is part of the skill set. Finally, mathematical calculations and judging risk are part of health literacy.
Anyone can have low health literacy. Even a physician when put into the position of being a patient can experience a lower level of health literacy. As Peter Morrison of the Literacy Coalition of Central Texas notes, “One of the biggest barriers faced by low health literacy patients is the shame of not understanding. This inhibits question asking and promotes head nodding.”
Brain Function In Emotional Situations
Another reason for confusion at a physician appointment has to do with how your brain functions. Research shows that in highly emotional situations, such as learning a cancer diagnosis, your attention narrows and focuses on the disturbing news. Less energy and attention goes to such peripheral information as the treatment plan.
Memory Associated with Place and State
Additionally, location matters: where you learn the bad news and your emotional status when learning that news— may be significantly different from when you are recalling that information. That discrepancy can impact your ability to remember what your physician said. Even under optimal circumstances, people in these situations leave the physician’s office with only about 50% of the information that has been provided to them.
1) List Writing
When you are in a relaxed setting is the best time to sit down and come up with a list of symptoms or questions for your doctor. A prepared list in hand can give you a leg up in self-confidence and may get your concerns met more effectively.
2) Before the Appointment: Do A Little Research
You are going into the land of “medicalese.” Even if your physician tries to speak in plain language, it may not be clear to you. There are ways to increase your understanding. Read and learn about your health condition. Talk to others with similar conditions.
3) At The Appointment: Don’t Fear Asking Questions
A technique to use at the doctor’s office is called “Ask Me 3”. Before you leave the doctor, you want to be able to answer these three questions.
“1. What is my main problem?
2. What do I need to do?
3. Why is it important for me to do this?”
Taking these three questions with you during a doctor’s appointment, writing down the answers, and making sure you understand everything that is said to you are ways to make a difference. Talk to any of the healthcare professionals there to get the answers to these questions.
4) Teach Back
Teach Back is a strategy to make sure you understand the instructions given to you by your healthcare practitioner. If your provider doesn’t ask you to explain instructions back to him, request that opportunity. Say, “I’m going to repeat back your instructions to make sure I understand you properly. Please correct any mistakes I make. ” Then, in your own words, try to describe the diagnosis, treatment and/or next steps.
5) Leave Embarrassment at Home, It’s Not For The Doctors Office
Having spent years training to understand the human body, physicians have a completely different perspective on bodily functions like sex or urination (peeing) or defecation (pooping). To them, differences or changes in functions give them an understanding of what is happening with the body as a whole. So discussion of these functions, though definitely not “table talk,” are completely acceptable and normal in the physician’s office. Leaving out communication of important bodily functions gives an incomplete picture of how you are doing. So let the doctor know any changes in common bodily functions at your appointments.
6) Bring A Friend or Family Member Along
“Two heads are better than one” is a maxim that’s especially true in the healthcare setting. Having someone taking notes for you and keeping you on track by sharing symptoms or asking questions, takes the pressure off you.
Remember: There Are No Dumb Questions
Don’t leave the physician’s office confused. You have the right to know what is happening to your body.