April 28, 2016
Talking with your doctor and other healthcare professionals
How often have you read this phrase?
Before starting [fill in the blank] or any new therapy you should speak to a health care professional.
Many people don’t do this. They avoid speaking for fear that they will be dismissed, or even ridiculed. But good communication can help prevent many problems, including some real disasters.
Good communication for better and safer patient care is advocated within healthcare professions. However, this can be difficult to achieve: health care professionals sometimes disagree about what is best for their patients and can find it difficult to work together. Patients who ask for “a second opinion” sometimes experience resistance.
So obtaining meaningful health care with advice from professionals who work in different traditions is possible, but perseverance is often required. Professionals who practice what is called “complementary medicine” do this on a regular basis, but for others it may be something quite unfamiliar. Professionals trained in any tradition can be mistrustful and dismissive of new and different information coming from another professional. They may feel their identity, competence and even their reputation are at stake, along with patient safety.
Sharing information with all your health care professionals about treatments you are pursuing is essential. For example, some drugs and herbs can create serious interactions that could even jeopardize your life, let alone your treatment goals. Or, the side effects of one treatment can be misidentified as the symptoms of a disease. This can easily happen if there is not good communication.
No matter what you want to try, good and honest communication is important. So, how does a person communicate with professionals about information or treatments gained from another profession, or from other sources (including online)? We have listed some things you might try when you are building a team to help you make changes to improve your overall health.
COMMUNICATE CLEARLY: Tell the professional whose advice you are seeking exactly what you are doing with others, or on your own. Make some notes to take with you; that often helps tokeep the discussion on topic. Be prepared to listen to what they have to say, and pay close attention to how they say it. Wait until they are done before moving on with more conversation. You have a right to expect that they will listen to you too. Try to avoid an argument; that doesn’t make anything better. Speaking in an accurate and calm way in order to provide clarity for everyone is helpful.
CREATE DIALOGUE: Communication is not a one-way street—it’s a broad avenue with information flowing in both directions. Ask for clarification if you don’t understand anything that has been said, or why it has been said. If someone is not listening to you, ask him or her to please hear you out. If any health care professional actually refuses to listen to you when you ask questions, you might want to choose someone else who will work with you.
PROVIDE INFORMATION: All health care professionals are busy individuals. They may not have time, or even the inclination to learn something new. And if you are interested in a topic where they have little background, you should not expect them to know the answer. You can help with this by providing short and clear written (or digital) information about anything you may want to try. For example, a physician or a naturopath might not know much about HIITS (high intensity interval training), its usefulness, or relative safety for someone who is overweight, or who may have even had a heart attack. You can provide them with this, in printed or digital form. You can also say you are considering this, but you would like their input first—that way they may actually spend a little time reading it.
LISTEN: There may be good reasons for them to be uneasy with what you want to attempt; be prepared to listen to them. And then, decide whether you still need more information and decide what action to take. Share that too. Remember, no matter how things work out, your experience can ultimately help other patients too. And that is a very worthwhile goal for both you and your health care provider to keep in mind.
ADVOCACY: People are often advised to be their own advocates in large bureaucratic systems like health care—but it’s much more easily said than done, especially if you are already ill. See if you can get someone else to help advocate for you if you need to get more information, or simply get a response that has not been forthcoming. An advocate can actually be part of your team—you don’t need to go it alone.
REPORT REGULARLY: Whether changes are positive, negative, or things just seem to remain unchanged, make sure everyone with whom you are working knows how things are going. They all have to be on the same page, and have the same information. This is really important—failing to do this can lead to even greater discrepancies in recommendations coming from various professionals. Not only does that not work, it can be dangerous.
CONSIDER CHANGE IF OTHERS WILL NOT: This is a tough call—if people whom you consult are trying to take over, or won’t collaborate with you or others, then consider changing the people on your team. After all, it’s your team, and your health. This isn’t always easy to do if you live in an area where there are not many other practitioners. Before taking this fairly drastic step, try saying why you are disappointed in the reaction you are getting. After all, they are supposed to have your best interests at heart—not their own ego. See if you can “reset” things by clearing the air before doing anything else.
REMAIN ENGAGED: If things don’t work, and certainly if they deteriorate, seek new advice; try something different, or consult someone else for another opinion. But also ask yourself some hard questions: Did I really try? Was I diligent? For example: If you cheat on a diet, but can’t actually admit that you ate that whole Halloween cupcake (well, three of them) at the kid’s party, you won’t get far with any diet! Did I really walk up that hill at high speed five times last week? Or, did I rest on my laurels and only do it twice, and maybe not so fast. Be honest with yourself, or you won’t be able to be honest with your health care team either.
Overall it helps to stay calm, be polite and try to understand what is happening with your body and mind and with those whom you have asked to help you. A practitioner who is already trying their best to help you can also be frustrated that there isn’t much headway being made. Getting past that hurdle can clear the way for good communication if you simply ask them what they are worried about, and why. Perhaps they lost someone in a situation they feel is similar. Perhaps they are going through some problems of their own! Health care professionals—no matter what tradition they come from—have complex lives just like everyone else. And that includes illness itself. If there is genuine concern for you, then good communication should be possible, if not always easy. And no matter who you ask to help you, nothing good can happen if you do not share a clear understanding of what each of you is doing, and why.