IN MY ROLE AS AN ONCOLOGY SOCIAL WORKER, I often talk with patients who are unhappy about their conversations with their doctors. The most common problem is feeling rushed during appointments. Patients also may feel misunderstood or disrespected. Other common concerns include not understanding the information a doctor is presenting, worrying that important details are being withheld, being overwhelmed by information, feeling that a doctor is emotionally insensitive, and being dissatisfied with office routines or systems. Sometimes, there’s just bad chemistry.

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Hester Hill Schnipper    Photo courtesy of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center​​

It’s easy for me to remind you that because you are the consumer, you are hiring your doctor. It’s not so easy to feel that way. The realities of health care may mean that you have limited choices in selecting a hospital or physician. What’s more, the balance of power is very much on the doctor’s side, and it is hard to feel empowered an​d entitled when you are undressed and scared. But take heart: There are strategies that can help you feel better connected and more in control in this important relationship.

1) Keep in mind that relationships go both ways, and it is safe to assume that your doctor wants good communication with you, too.

2) Prepare for appointments and phone calls. Make a list of your questions, and start with the most important ones. Your doctor probably won’t have time to review three pages of questions, so prioritize and organize.

3) Take someone with you to every important appointment. The extra eyes, ears and memory will be helpful, and it may be useful to hear how someone else experiences your doctor’s words and style.

4) Ask how to reach your doctor between appointments. Are emails OK? Will your doctor or a nurse return calls? Don’t call with minor questions that can wait. Being respectful of your doctor’s time will make her more respectful of yours.

5) Tell your doctor a little about yourself. Force some normal social interaction. Having information about your life will help your doctor relate to you as a “real person.”

6) Tell your doctor what you are worried and scared about. Be specific. Are you concerned about pain? Caring for your children? Being a burden to your family? Medical expenses?

7) If you feel there are cultural misunderstandings, ask whether the hospital or doctor’s office has a patient navigator who could help you communicate. If not, try to educate your doctor about your background—succinctly.

8) Let your doctor know what your priorities are and remind her when needed. One of my patients frequently repeats her goals: to minimize the difficulties for her family, to minimize her own emotional and physical pain, and to make memories. This clarity helps everyone.

9) Finally, remember always that you and your sense of comfort with your care are most important. If you don’t like, respect and trust your doctor, find another one. No matter how daunting that may seem, it is well worth the effort. 

Hester Hill Schnipper, a licensed independent clinical social worker, is a breast cancer survivor and the manager of oncology social work at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. She also writes a blog, Living With Breast Cancer, for the hospital's website.