How caregivers can assist in effective communication with doctors

Staff Members at Cognitive Psychiatry of Chapel Hill

Today, a visit to the doctor can be an anxiety-producing experience. After completing paperwork, waiting in the waiting room, talking with the nurse, waiting in the exam room, the actual time spent with the doctor is often quite short. During a quick 5-15 minutes, the doctor must complete his/her exam, ask you questions, answer all your questions, discuss a treatment plan, and complete all necessary paperwork. It is easy to feel rushed, forget your questions, and feel that you have not communicated effectively with your doctor.

Caregivers play a critical role in the doctor visit. Not only do they provide moral and physical support during the visit, they must communicate a number of complicated issues to the doctor. Caregivers also have the responsibility to help the family member understand the visit, and they must then carry out the treatment plan. Based on my experience treating individuals with memory loss, here are some suggestions for caregivers:

1) Preparation — this is the key to a successful doctor visit. Caregivers should prepare the following:
a. complete medication list, including medication name, dose, time given
b. list of all supplements, vitamins, alternative therapies, physical therapy, etc.
c. list of issues to be discussed at the visit — this should be prioritized with most important issue at the top
d. a brief description of the patient’s daily routine including sleep patterns and eating patterns
e. description of any changes in behavior, health, or cognitive function since last visit
f. list of all other doctors currently involved in care — name, phone number, fax

2) Attend all doctor visits — this can be tricky since the family member still wants a sense of independence and a sense of privacy. I recommend that the caregiver hand the doctor the information they have prepared, allow the family member to have exam done in private, then ask to return to the room to answer questions and discuss the treatment plan.

3) Think like a reporter — when talking with the doctor about symptoms, stick to “the facts”. Tell the doctor what the symptom is like, where in the body it happens, when it occurs, tell them what makes the symptom better and what makes it worse. Try to avoid going into details about daily routine unless the doctor asks for them specifically.

4) Write it down — make sure that you have a written copy of the treatment plan; you can write it down yourself or ask the doctor to write it down on a prescription pad for you. Keep this information in a folder or file with other health care information. Make sure you understand under what you should be looking out for and when you would need to call the doctor or nurse back.

5) Prioritize — make sure you have discussed your #1 priority issue. If you do not have time to address all your issues, ask to schedule another appointment soon. Most doctors’ offices will only schedule the doctor for 15 minutes, so for a complicated case, you might need more than one visit.

6) Communicate with other doctors — tell the doctor or nurse that you would like the note from today’s visit to be faxed to the patient’s other doctors. Give them the doctor list you prepared before the visit and ask if you need to sign any release forms

7) Use phone help lines — if you get home and are confused about the visit or instructions, call the doctor’s office. There is often a help line or a nurse who can help clarify the doctor’s instructions for you.

Good luck!

Live Mentally Healthy,
Cognitive Psychiatry of Chapel Hill

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