A meta-analysis of 13 studies conducted by doctors at Massachusetts General Hospital published in 2014 found that people with conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity and osteoarthritis experienced better health when they collaborated well with their doctors. The researchers noted:
The cornerstones of all healthy relationships are respect and trust, and nowhere is this as evident as in the patient-doctor relationship. Studies show that doctors who foster trust create therapeutic relationships characterized by strong two-way communication, compassion and empathy. They inspire better patient adherence to treatment plans and preventive health care suggestions. In fact, “adherence rates have been found to be nearly three times higher in primary care relationships characterized by very high levels of trust coupled with physicians’ knowledge of the patient as a whole person.”
“Although the effect was small, it’s not smaller than other interventions [like taking aspirin to prevent heart attacks] that are widely prescribed,” said study author Helen Riess, MD, director of the empathy and relational science program at Mass General.
Here are five ways to build a healthy relationship with your family doctor founded on trust and mutual respect.
1) Arrive at your appointment prepared
Whether it’s your first appointment with a new doctor or a visit with one who knows you well, making the most of your limited time benefits both of you. If you’re dealing with a new condition, list all of your symptoms and the date of onset. Draft another list of questions you want to ask, and prioritize them. Helen Riess, MD, suggests you tell your doctor how many things are on your discussion list at the start of your appointment. If your time is cut short, another appointment can be scheduled.
Provide your doctor with a list of all prescription and over-the-counter medications you’re taking, including vitamins, herbs and supplements, and the dosages. Have you had a flu shot this year or undergone any recent surgical procedures?
If this is your first appointment with a new physician, ensure that your medical records are forwarded prior to your arrival, or bring along a summary of recent results from lab and imaging tests. Address your main concern prompting this visit right off the bat, and solicit the doctor’s thoughts about what might be causing your symptoms.
2) Be your own best health care advocate
Not everyone is comfortable asking questions or challenging a doctor, but if you don’t understand the information you’re being given or are unsure about a recommendation, your chances of complying are lower. This affects your entire treatment plan and undermines both your health and your relationship with your doctor.
• Speak up if you don’t understand your doctor.
• Ask for the information to be repeated until you do understand.
• Take notes or bring a companion to help you retain the information.
Patients forget 40 to 80 percent of medical information immediately after a visit.
If your doctor orders lab work, ask what he or she is looking for and whether there are any possible dangers associated with the test, likewise for medications. If you’re hesitant, research common side effects on the Internet so you can make an informed and empowered decision. You may decide to ask your doctor for an alternative that you’re more comfortable with.
If your doctor can’t answer a question about your condition, ask: “Can you please follow up and get back to me with the answer?” Or: “Would you rather refer me to a doctor who specializes in this problem?”
Be candid with your doctor about your fears and anxieties: “How long will it take for me to heal? When can I go back to work? Can I keep running 6 miles a day?” This helps the doctor get to know your personal priorities and allows him or her to support you with empathy and personalized attention.
3) Learn how to use patient portals and electronic health records (EHRs)
Online patient portals make it easy for you to get access to your personal medical history using your home computer or an app on your favorite Android or Apple device. You can check in to see the results of recent medical testing, refresh your memory about older medical history, or communicate directly with your physician through a secure email system.
Revere Health’s patient portal, Follow My Health, allows you to ask your doctor questions day or night. Send a secure message about your exams, your medications or any other concerns, and receive an email back with the answers you need.
4) Take advantage of educational and emotional support resources
Knowledge is power, and your doctor can provide you with access to an abundance of empowering resources. Ask your doctor if he has printed materials that would be helpful or if he can recommend specific books or websites. Often the medical practice’s own website has a “patient resource” section or library full of educational materials and videos.
Ask for referrals to local support groups tailored to your specific physical or emotional condition or stage-of-life challenge. For example, ask your doctor if there is a diabetes, COPD or Crohn’s support group nearby if you are dealing with a specific chronic disease. Would a bereavement support group be helpful if you’ve recently lost a loved one? Is there an online caregiver network you can turn to now that you’re tasked with full-time responsibility for an aging parent afflicted with Alzheimer’s?
5) Keep communication lines open and clear
A healthy and successful relationship with your doctor is a collaborative one that thrives on effective interpersonal communication. Clear communication “promotes greater patient satisfaction with medical care, which in turn fosters higher levels of adherence.”
• Be honest with your physician, even about potentially embarrassing things like how many alcoholic drinks you have in a day or occasionally skipping your medications. Your doctor needs accurate information to provide you with the best possible care, so be candid.
• Ask your doctor about preferred method of contact between appointments. Does he or she prefer email, voicemail or that you leave a message with a nurse?
• Keep your primary care physician in the loop whenever you see a new specialist or seek care in an emergency situation. Although EHRs often automatically convey this information, it’s a good policy to always request that a record of recent care be sent to your family doctor.
• Share your goals with your doctor to better help customize your treatment plan. Ask, “What steps can I take on a weekly and monthly basis to reach my goals?”
• Make decisions together. If you’re facing more than one possible diagnosis, ask your doctor what the best course of action is to rule out the various alternatives. Based on his or her experience with other patients, what can you expect moving forward? Is there a treatment choice that has the best success rate? What would he or she advise a loved one to do?
All of these communication-enhancing strategies are easy to implement to ensure that you and your doctor stay on the same page. This therapeutic relationship guarantees you the best possible healthcare, and the best possible health.
About the Author—Brandon Hall, MD
Are you hoping to partner with a Board-Certified Family Physician who you can trust to support your family’s wellness through all cycles of life? Dr. Hall’s family medicine clinic offers compassionate, patient-centered care in a broad range of disciplines including internal medicine, pediatrics, obstetrics and gynecology and geriatrics.